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Breaktime: Chip Martel bridges research and a yen for teamwork

By Amy Agronis on January 11, 2002 in University

Chip Martel displays some of the medals he has earned as a competitor in international bridge tournaments. The UC Davis computer science professor recently won his fifth world championship.

Debbie Aldridge/MediaworksBy Ellen Chrismer

Computer science professor Chip Martel likes to joke that he gets mentioned more often in the New York Times than any other campus faculty member.

Though he’s working on interesting projects in his specialty – the practical application of algorithms – it’s not his academic prowess that usually gets him the mentions. It’s his play.

In November, Martel won his fifth world couple bridge championship, this time securing the Bermuda Bowl team duplicate bridge title in Paris. The 18-team tournament, like many prominent bridge competitions, was covered extensively by Times bridge columnist Alan Truscott.

The complex card game has a dual appeal for Martel.

"It’s a little bit like my research with problem-solving," he said. "But bridge is also nice because there is a human element. You interact with a partner."

Though bridge is the only game Martel plays seriously, he has applied his computer research to games like soccer and baseball.

Recently, he and Professor Dan Gusfield expanded on previous studies of "magic numbers" used to determine which sports teams are still in contention to win their division. With the UC Davis research, it’s now possible to determine the teams in the running for a "wild card" spot. These results can apply even when a team’s record includes ties.

Martel, colleagues, consultant Stuart Stubblebine and several students are also working on the project "Truthsayer," which should help Internet users trust the information they get from databases like those used on airline travel Web sites. "You might wonder if the site has been paid off by one airline to favor its flights," Martel said.

The Truthsayer proposal would separate the "owner" of the information on available flights – for instance the Federal Aviation Administration – from the "publisher," the Internet site. Under the plan, e-shoppers would use software that detects any answers that don’t match the FAA database. Martel expects the concept could also be used to verify medical or financial information.

Martel has taught at UC Davis since 1980. He and his wife, Jan, the coach of the Paris world championship team, live in Davis. The couple has a son, Rick, who lives in Woodland with his wife Kristin and their one-year-old daughter, Maya.

How did you get your start in bridge?

My parents taught me how to play when I was quite young. I got seriously involved in high school (in Urbana, Ill.). At the time, bridge was a big thing on college campuses, so I would go over to the University of Illinois and play.

Bridge will be an exhibition event at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Is bridge a sport?

I think it’s a sport. It’s reasonable to say that anything people take seriously as a competition is a sport. In Bermuda, at the last Bermuda Bowl, I had to take a drug test.

Are there bridge spectators?

At Paris, there were probably 500 people watching in the ballroom at the end of the tournament. At a typical national tournament, there are probably a few hundred people watching.

Can you make money at bridge?

People can make money. Most tournaments don’t have prizes. The world championship doesn’t have a prize. It’s like the Olympics – the glory of winning. But there are people who are pros. They mostly make money by teaching or being paid to play with people.

Do you read the bridge column?

I usually do. They are not terribly useful but sometimes interesting. From my perspective, I am usually seeing how often they miss things. Often they may describe (a move) that could have happened, when something better could have happened.

What do your colleagues think of your bridge prowess?

Most of them are pretty good fans. A lot of the time they are busy trying to publicize (my successes).

What are your wishes for the New Year?

The year 2001 was pretty successful in terms of bridge accomplishments. (My partners and I) also won two national titles. Equaling that would be nice. The computer science department is also doing well. We are continuing to try to expand and move up. In the 21 years I’ve been here, the department has really blossomed. •

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,