On Page 50 of the February Edition of 'English Bridge' there is a report of how Cheltenham Bridge Club had used Bridge Base Online (BBO) 'Bots' to avoid sit-outs in their Bridgeathon. At Thanet and Broadstairs Bridge Clubs we started using the bots to avoid sit-outs from last September, first in supervised play sessions and then in normal club duplicate sessions where there was a non-playing director. This document sets out what you need to do if your club wants to use bots to avoid a sit-out.
You need 3 'computers' capable of running a BBO client so ipads and tablets, and even smartphones are OK, although I think the master user tasks are easier in a browser on a laptop. They all need an internet connection. It does not have to be very fast but it does have to be reliable. The apps are prone to closing if the connection drops out temporarily. Ideally the bots will be a stationary pair playing the boards in numerical order, so North-South in a Mitchell or a stationary pair in a Howell. If you have humans who also need to be stationary this may restrict your choice of movement. If you are using laptops for the players it is pretty much essential that the bots are a stationary pair. Using tablets it is probably practical to have the bots moving but I have not tried it and if they change polarity that would be a lot of work. It is counter intuitive (at least to me) but the bots are not where the computers are. They are in the other two empty seats and the players sit at the computers.
Having identified your hardware there are a couple of tasks that you need to carry out in advance but you will only need to do them once.
You need 3 BBO user names. The master user can be your own normal one. For Broadstairs Bridge Club I created 2 new users (with the same password) bbcsitoute and bbcsitoutw for the players.
The master user will be deploying the BBO bots. BBO normally charge for this but will give your user access for free to use to avoid sit-outs. You need to contact them to do this firstname.lastname@example.org. They responded to my request within 48 hours giving me the basic robots and offering to upgrade to advanced for free. They will also suppress adverts on the usernames used by the players.
You will have to set up the bots in your scoring software. You must be careful to use the following EBU Numbers and First Name/Last Name. (As far as the EBU is concerned these bots were born in January 2019 and so the club will not need to pay a USM charge for them for the next 25 years.)
00900000 - Basic BBO / Bot A
00900001 - Basic BBO / Bot B
00900002 - Advanced BBO / Bot A
00900003 - Advanced BBO / Bot B
We now come to the set up required for each event where you potentially might want to use the bots to avoid a sit-out.
It is a prerequisite that machine-dealt boards are used as the hands need to be loaded into BBO. This needs to be done by the master user. BBO only accepts hands in its own format which is a .lin file. It is likely that your dealing software does not provide files in this format. However there is free conversion software available. Most dealing software will provide a .pbn file and I use a Web-based converter http://johnfromarran.org.uk/Bridge/PbnToLin.html to produce a .lin file from a .pbn but there are probably others available.
For the next few steps there are two You Tube videos produced in the US which show what needs to be done. They can be found by following this link https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDa1k5m14qhCWu5t0t7dd7W8nE9RY6Kn_
To load the .lin file into BBO you log in to BBO and from the top options bar you select 'My BBO' and then 'Hands and Results'. In 'My Hand Folders' create a new folder giving it an easily recognisable name. You can now 'Import LIN File' you created earlier.
We have come to the point where in BBO we create the table which will actually be used in the event. From the initial log in to BBO the master user needs to take the fourth option from the left-hand menu 'Practice' and then 'Start a Teaching Table'. If it is not already selected choose 'Form of Scoring' 'Teaching'. You will want to uncheck 'Allow Kibitzers' and check 'Permission Required to Play'. Reserve the East and West seats (usually) for the two new users you created and click 'Start Table'. When the table appears you choose robots for North and South. Click the 'Deal Source' button and then 'Use Saved Deals' to select the file you saved previously.
You then sign the other two users on to the other computers. They will be invited to join the table created by the master user which they should accept. You are then ready for the players to sit in front of these computers and play the hands so put the computers on the appropriate table in the appropriate positions. When the master user clicks 'Redeal' hand 1 will appear before the players. If you need to start with a later board you need to click 'Redeal' until you reach it. If you do this reasonably quickly the players will not be able to see the deals come up on their screens. If using Bridgemates you will need to input the bots' EBU Numbers at the start.
The players then play the board as they would on BBO. When they have finished the board the master user clicks on 'Redeal' to move on to the next hand in turn until the end of the round. You should not click 'Redeal' to move on to the next round until the old players have left so they do not see the next hand but preferably before the new players arrive so they do not see the end of the old hand. If a subsequent round needs lower numbered boards it is necessary to reload the 'Deal Source' to get to the first board and then 'Redeal' forward to the board you want. It is not possible to go backwards through the hands. I believe that it is possible to select hands individually from the saved deals but I have not tried it. I have set out in an appendix the instructions which I have found on how to do this.
The players can enter their scores into the Bridgemate or traveller with a self-confirmation, the master user can check on BBO that they have been entered correctly or better, as the scores are displayed on the master user's screen he/she can enter them into the Bridgemate (or traveller as the boards do not need to be on the table where they are being played). NB you need to make sure that the 'My Results' tab is not selected for the two other users so as not to display the results on the screen as they might see scores from other boards played at the table.
If the players are not familiar with the BBO interface then they need to be coached in its use initially. This can be quite hard to do without conveying unauthorised information. In general you need to work quite hard in the early days to stop the players saying things out loud. This unfamiliarity with BBO is one of the things which means that for the first few times you will need a non-playing director. Once people are accustomed to BBO it can go quite smoothly but until then they need assistance with the mechanics and they may find it harder to concentrate on the play.
The big question is could you move to a playing director once you have overcome the issue of player familiarity with BBO. At most stages the director does not need to see the hands but in moving the bots' table on to the next board it can be difficult to avoid seeing the cards and the results tab would have to be hidden on the master user's screen meaning that checking of the scores entered at the bots' table would have to be done at the end of play. However it seems to me that these problems could be minimised if the bots' table was positioned so that they played the boards just played by the director and the only problem in a Mitchell might be on the final round.
All this may seem like a lot to do but once you are used to it it can all be set up quite quickly and smoothly.
Once again although I have not tried it should be possible to eliminate the need for a host by replacing one of the bots by the odd player (who could use their own BBO log in). This would require an extra computer and the player would have to play the bots' 2-over-1 system.
This all very new. At our clubs we have only used it 7 or 8 times as we do not always have a sit out and only use it when we have a non-playing director. So if other clubs try it out we would like to hear your experiences especially if you attempt it with a non-playing director.
All of this above is a bit of a work around to use bits of BBO for purposes for which they were not designed but it does work. However BBO have told me that later this year they will be releasing new functionality specifically for clubs to use for this purpose. It remains to be seen whether it will be designed to allow for its use by a playing director.
Selecting a specific board - Remember the listing of uploaded boards you had when you first did the LIN file upload? This is what you use to select a specific board. You may still have it up or it is easy to relaunch: 1. Click on My BBO from the top option bar. 2. Click on Hands and Results. 3. Find your folder in the list and click on SHOW. You will see a list of all the hands in your folder. 4. Find the board you want and click on SHOW for that board. The actual board will be displayed, but only the Director can see it. 5. At the bottom of the displayed hand there is an EXPORT DEAL button. Press it. 6. You will see an option that says UPLOAD DEAL TO TABLE. Press it. That board will be automatically loaded to your sitout table for the players to play. 7. When the players need another board, you can select it from the list the same way. You can go back and forth from selecting a specific board to just using the REDEAL button to advance to the next board. Note, however, that when you select a specific board to be played and then press the REDEAL button, the next board displayed does not start from the specific board number. The REDEAL goes back to the position it was in when playing the boards sequentially.