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08/23/2011 07:00:00

Techer Representing the United States at International Youth Bridge Competition

Back at the end of May, Dan Emmons sat in his Ruddock House room for the better part of two days, fixated on his laptop. The sophomore wasn't working on a problem set or a take-home exam; he was playing in an online bridge tournament.

When all was said and done, Emmons and his bridge partner had performed well enough to earn two of six spots on a national team. Now they're in Opatija, Croatia, representing the United States in the under-21 age division at the second World Youth Bridge Congress. Caltech alumnus Roger Lee ('09) is also there competing, as part of the under-26 U.S. team.

Emmons was in the first grade when his grandparents taught him to play bridge. But he didn't really get into it until high school, when he and a group of friends were looking for a card game that required a lot of thought. Once they brushed up on the rules and picked up some of the strategies, they realized that bridge was just what they had been looking for. "We enjoyed it so much that this same group of people played it at lunch with the same partners for two years," Emmons says.

Since then, the 20-year-old from Fairfax, Virginia, has won regional tournaments as well as a national title (which he won over Thanksgiving break freshman year). 

Emmons describes bridge as a giant logic puzzle played out with cards. That's appealing to the computer-science major, especially because he's interested in teaching computers to play games well.

"The big difference between bridge and other logic puzzles is that you don't have nearly enough information to solve the puzzle yourself," Emmons says. In bridge, each player sits across from a partner who holds another set of cards, and partners try to work together to earn the most points with few ways of exchanging information. They can only do this by gleaning as much as they can from the moves everyone else makes. 

Emmons says this makes for a challenging computer-science problem. "Things like partial information, a cooperative player, and an infinite number of game states make it an extremely hard problem computationally," he says.

This summer, Emmons and his bridge partner, Stephen Drodge, a friend from high school, have spent every free moment preparing for the international competition.

Some days, they've spent more than 12 hours practicing. The World Youth Bridge Congress will conclude on August 30.

Caltech has a small bridge club, and Techers have had other victories playing the game. Lee and three other Caltech undergrads won the Collegiate Team Championship at the Summer North American Bridge Championships in 2008. Emmons says the club got "boatloads of interest" at the club fair for prefrosh. "So," he says, "it looks like there will be quite a bit more of the game in years to come."

Written by Kimm Fesenmaier