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BW Investigates: Why Did the ACBL Abandon ACBLscore+?
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Editor's note: We provided Robert Hartman with a copy of this article prior to publication for comment or corrections; his unedited response appears on the final page of this article.

At the 2014 Summer NABC in Las Vegas, ACBL CEO Robert Hartman informed the Board of Directors (BOD) that management had decided to abandon the project to create ACBLscore+, the new software intended to replace the League’s current scoring software, ACBLscore. This decision came as a shock to most, including many members of the BOD.

The new plan is to make incremental updates to ACBLscore, which management is now convinced is a “gem” capable of serving the league for twenty or thirty more years. The board did not formally approve this plan in Las Vegas, though there was no vocal objection to the announcement. More details are expected at the Fall NABC in Providence, including exact dollar figures for money spent on ACBLscore+ (the ACBL acknowledged that at least $1.5M had been spent on the project), a budget and timetable for updating ACBLscore, and an assessment of how much of the work done and money spent on ACBLscore+ can be re-purposed towards the updating of ACBLscore.

The developer contracted to build ACBLscore+, Hammond Software, is no longer involved with the project; ACBL will not comment on the contract with Hammond Software or the details surrounding the termination of its services. The new plan brings the work on ACBLscore “in house,” to be overseen by a team at ACBL headquarters in Horn Lake, Mississippi.

A lot of questions are raised by this decision, but unfortunately not a lot of answers are forthcoming. Both CEO Hartman and President Phyllis Harlan (the head of the BOD) were prompt to answer my requests for information, but they were unable to answer some of my questions, due to their admitted lack of technical expertise. Neither would discuss details of the relationship/contract with Hammond Software.

While researching this article, I spoke with current and former ACBL employees, members of the BOD, tournament directors, club directors, and bridge-playing software experts, most of whom requested to remain anonymous. I would like to thank all of them for their help.

History

 

ACBLscore is a software program that was developed over thirty years ago by Jim Lopushinsky to generate bridge game results and masterpoint data.  Jim is still on the ACBL payroll and has been responsible for the software's maintenance since its release. The program, originally written for DOS and later updated with a Windows version, has served the ACBL remarkably well. In addition to scoring and masterpoint awarding, ACBLscore also handles game logistics and financials.

With so much of the League’s operations relying on ACBLscore — it is the link between ACBL headquarters and the 3,000+ clubs and all of the sectional and regional tournaments held around the country — there was concern that a problem with ACBLscore could cripple the ACBL’s operations. One person I spoke with told me, “If Jim Lopushinsky dies tomorrow, ACBLscore dies with him.” This might be an overstatement, but it is a valid concern, especially given how integral ACBLscore has become to the ACBL’s operations.

There are some other issues with ACBLscore. Most tournament directors (TDs) prefer the DOS version, since it has some functionality that the Windows version does not have and is easier to use (once one has memorized all the keyboard commands). The Windows version of ACBLscore also has issues interfacing with modern printers and running the tournament finances functions of the program. However, new technology that requires interfacing through USB (such as BridgeMates) is not compatible with the DOS version. Many TDs run the Windows version to get the scores from the BridgeMates, then copy the data into the DOS version to score the game and print the results. DOS is a dying operating system, and DOS programs like ACBLscore will not run on a new Windows computer running the 64-bit version of Windows 7 or 8 (which is the standard version). That means TDs who want to continue to use the DOS version of ACBLscore cannot buy a new computer to run it. These compatibility issues mean that a few years down the road, when the current computers TDs are using break down, it will be impossible for them to run their preferred version of ACBLscore.

There were also features players had been requesting — most commonly improved results reporting and Swiss teams reporting and assigning — that would require significant revisions to the current program. Many did not believe ACBLscore capable of such features.

With these issues in mind, a committee was formed over three years ago, before current ACBL CEO Robert Hartman was hired, to examine the future of ACBLscore. This committee included members of the BOD, TDs, members of ACBL management, and outside experts, including Fred Gitelman of Bridge Base Online. The committee looked at the needs of the league going forward, the capabilities of ACBLscore, and the risks inherent in relying on a thirty-year-old piece of software.

The committee’s analysis, communicated in a report written by Steve Bailey, another consultant to the committee, was that ACBLscore had served its purpose admirably, but had reached the end of its life-cycle and needed to be replaced. The conclusion was not that there was anything glaringly wrong with ACBLscore, simply that it needed modernization, and that the best and safest route for the ACBL to take with regard to its scoring program was to build a new version from scratch. The ACBL was unwilling to share a copy of Bailey’s report with me, so my assessment of the committee’s recommendations is based on the recollections of the committee members who spoke with me.

All of the software experts I have spoken to agree with this general sentiment about the expected lifetime of a computer program. Programs can be added to and updated, but eventually they simply become out of date, written in a language few people know anymore and using antiquated technology that gets the job done, but cannot match the efficiency of modern technology. Specifically, Pascal, the language in which ACBLscore is written, was common in the 80s, but is rarely used today. Finding programmers familiar with Pascal is difficult, and the pool is limited to people in their 50s and 60s.

The board and management accepted the committee’s recommendation and began a project to create a new program, dubbed ACBLscore+, that would replace ACBLscore, duplicating all of ACBLscore’s current functionality in a modern framework and eventually adding some new features. The possibility of licensing existing software (such as what is currently in use in Europe or Australia) was briefly considered, but ultimately rejected because of the amount of custom code ACBLscore required apart from the basics of scoring a bridge game, particularly for handling tournament and club financials.

The ACBL solicited bids from contractors, eventually choosing Hammond Software, which is led by a bridge player from the Atlanta area, Nicolas Hammond. Soon after Hammond Software was selected, the leadership change at the ACBL halted progress temporarily, as new CEO Hartman took a few months to review the proposed plans and then negotiate the contract with Hammond Software. In early 2012, the contract was signed and the Hammond Software team officially began work on ACBLscore+, though significant work had already been completed before the contract was signed.

ACBLscore+

 

Hammond Software was given simple and broad parameters about what the new program needed to do. It needed to duplicate the functionality of the current program. It needed to run on Windows and Mac. It needed to use a free SQL database. That was about it. There were some general assumptions, like it should have a modern architecture, use modern programming languages, and have a user-friendly interface.

Rather than building a native application for Windows or Mac, Hammond Software chose to make ACBLscore+ web-based. It runs in a browser, so it can work on any computer with a web browser, running any operating system. An Internet connection is required for the initial download, but the program is stored locally on the computer, so it can be run without being connected to the Internet. (This was another implicit requirement, since many clubs and tournaments are run in locations without Internet access.)

ACBLscore+ was written using a variety of programming languages, including C, JavaScript, CSS, HTML, and Ruby. The software experts I spoke to all agreed this was an unsurprising and completely reasonable set of languages they would expect a modern program of this type to be written in and that one would have no trouble finding programmers familiar with these languages if necessary.

Hammond saw the project as a multi-phase plan. Phase I was to create the bare bones of the software — duplicating the functionality of ACBLscore in a modern, expandable environment. Phase II was to take advantage of the new capabilities and begin adding features. The original contract was just for Phase I, but everyone understood that one of the reasons for building the new software was to have a product that could easily be enhanced.

Building such a complicated program is a big job, and it was expected to take a couple of years. At several points along the way, progress was stalled as Hammond Software waited for information and documentation from the ACBL. According to Hammond, “At the time that the contract was terminated, there were some critical path items that had a six-month or longer delay and were never delivered by ACBL.”

The Contract

 

In early 2014, the ACBL and Hammond Software began negotiating a contract extension. In these negotiations, the ACBL insisted upon renegotiating parts of the original contract, specifically with regard to ownership. This seems to be one of the issues plaguing ACBLscore+.

Hammond Software owns the copyright to the software, but the ACBL has full rights to it, including software written by Hammond Software before the contract was signed. Hammond says that the ACBL received “a 10% cut in the original price of the contract in exchange for the Copyright/cross licensing agreement.”

Hammond says that during the negotiation of the contract extension, the ACBL asked him to give up his ownership rights for no compensation, and then stopped paying invoices when he refused. When Hammond was unwilling to renegotiate the ownership stipulations of the original contract, the negotiations fell apart and the relationship ended.

Unable to reach an agreement, Hammond Software terminated the contract on March 31, 2014. According to Hammond, he met the terms of the contract and delivered the promised software ahead of schedule and under budget. This, of course, excludes the portions he was unable to complete because of the ACBL’s delays of more than three months in providing him with key resources.

Hammond continued working on some new features, including starting a KO, and demoed them in Gatlinburg in April 2014. The ACBL was intrigued and reopened negotiations. But the copyright issue remained a sticking point, and the negotiations broke down again.

The Decision

 

In 2014, a new committee was assembled to assess the progress of the ACBLscore+ project and make decisions about how best to proceed. This committee included two relatively new members of the BOD with significant technical knowledge (Merlin Vilhauer from District 20 helped write the predecessor to ACBLscore and has decades of programming experience; Russ Jones from District 10 is a professor of Computer Science at Arkansas State University) and members of management, including a non-bridge-playing programmer from the Memphis area management hired as a consultant.

This committee reached a decision to abandon the ACBLscore+ project and instead to incrementally update the existing software (the opposite of the decision reached by the previous committee). Despite this radical shift in direction, the committee did not publicly provide a rationale for its decision. Hartman communicated the decision to the BOD in Las Vegas, and shortly thereafter sent the BOD members a statement they could use to announce the decision to their members. You can find this release or variations on it in several reports from BOD members made after the Las Vegas NABC, including this one:

http://moot.typepad.com/files/scoreupdate2014.pdf

1. The ACBL has made the decision to discontinue the ACBLscore+ project.  A working group consisting of Board members, internal staff and outside experts determined efforts to develop a completely new system ACBLScore+ fell short of what was required to work for the League’s members. The ACBL Board of Directors agreed with this decision at its July meeting in Las Vegas. 

2. The ACBL is now moving forward with plans to enhance the features and benefits of its existing scoring software, ACBLScore, and extend the life and functionality of the software for a long time to come. We are doing this because:

--Our tournament directors, our club owners and operators and our members and players have confidence in the existing system, in its reliability, in its accuracy.

--It is a system they know and have confidence in. We want to build on our success.

--Folks know how to use it; they know it works on their computers; they are comfortable with what they know and we want to add on to it.

--We want our club and tournament directors to be able to run games on their existing computers without expensive upgrades or complicated new lessons.

3. The ACBL is already enhancing the scoring software to give it more features and to integrate it more easily into complimentary [sic] systems. For examples, we have integrated data population with TourneyTrax, and we are building integration to create real time result display features on the web.

4. The total capitalized costs of the ACBLscore+  project is in excess of one and a half million dollars and we are determining what portion of the project product can be repurposed into the enhanced ACBLscore.

 

All of the reasons offered in the second item above were true three years ago when the ACBL’s leadership decided replacing ACBLscore was the best option. Nothing in this release explains what changed the minds of the people making the decisions. Some of the arguments — people are familiar with what they have, they don’t want them to have to buy new computers — fly in the face of accepted best practice in the technology world: software must be designed with new technology in mind, rather than catering to ancient hardware that might be owned by some users. Not wanting to disrupt people by changing something they are familiar with is a recipe for stagnation. Had we adhered to this strategy thirty years ago, we would still be matchpointing by hand

When I pressed for technical reasons for the change in direction, the only answer I received is that Pascal is in fact not obsolete. According to several people at ACBL I spoke with, it is experiencing a resurgence. In support of this, they all happily inform me that “Skype is written in Pascal.” Obviously this is a selling point ACBL is making internally, as multiple people I interviewed cited this “fact.”

I looked into this, since it didn’t sound quite right to me. Skype was first released in 2003, so while it feels modern, the original version is not cutting-edge software. The Windows user interface (UI) for Skype was written in Object Pascal (Delphi), which is an extension of Pascal. The decision to use Delphi was made casually — the developer in charge happened to be familiar with it — and no other parts of the program (ie the network interface or UIs for other platforms) were written in Delphi. Skype was sold to Microsoft in 2011, and Microsoft has now released new versions that do not use Delphi. So the statement “Skype is written in Pascal” would have been an overstatement in 2011 and is misleading today. I have found no support for the idea of a Pascal resurgence or that Pascal is less outdated now than it was three years ago.

I have found no technical reasons to question the assessment of the 2011 committee or to justify the new committee’s decision.

Current Status

 

ACBLscore+ was not built as a single piece of software; it is a suite of programs working together. While not completely finished, several pieces of the software are complete and ready to be used immediately. Portions of the program were demoed at several ACBL tournaments as part of the development process.

At the 2014 Atlanta regional held over Labor Day weekend (after the ACBL abandoned the software), Hammond ran pieces of the new software alongside ACBLscore to start KOs and display results and assignments for part of a Swiss.

Hammond never envisioned an overnight replacement of ACBLscore. The idea was to incrementally roll out ACBLscore+ alongside ACBLscore. One of the benefits of having ACBLscore+ duplicate ACBLscore’s functionality is testing: all you have to do to make sure the new program is working is run it alongside the old program and enter the same data. If they come up with different results, something’s wrong. ACBLscore+’s new features — like starting a KO — can be used independently, as they were during the demos in Gatlinburg and Atlanta; the event can still be scored in ACBLscore after it is started by ACBLscore+. ACBLscore+ was built to be backwards-compatible, so it can produce and read ACBLscore gamefiles.

There is still work to be done on this software. Some pieces are not finished. Some just need real-world testing. But some pieces — like starting a KO — are ready to be deployed. The people who have seen it in action are eager to use it; the organizers of the Gatlinburg regional are especially eager to use the new software to start all of their knockouts, which are typically the largest in the country.

Hammond has posted some information about the new software — which he has dubbed Bridgescore+ now that he is no longer associated with the ACBL — here:  http://bsp.bridgescoreplus.com. The “Show Me” section of the site includes videos of the software in action.

Conclusion

 

I was hoping to discover the reasons behind the ACBL’s decisions to abandon ACBLscore+; I was not able to do so. I am confident that the reasons were not technical, but it is not my place to divine explanations when I do not have access to all the information. As a simple rank-and-file member of the ACBL, perhaps I don't warrant full disclosure of the League business dealings, but according to my sources on the BOD, they also do not have this information. I implore the BOD to demand more information and account for how $1.5M -- approximately 10% of the ACBL's annual revenue -- was spent in this fashion.

The only conclusions I can offer are based on my personal experience and whatever I've learned researching this article. I find using ACBLscore to be tedious. People who have used it for years can maneuver it fairly quickly, but to a beginner it is quite opaque. When I took the ACBL’s director test, by far the most challenging part was the section on ACBLscore and all the funny-named commands. Software shouldn’t be that difficult. As a comparison, Hammond showed me the process to start a pairs game in ACBLscore (43 clicks) and ACBLscore+ (4 clicks). I have gotten to play around some with the new software, and I found it easy to use and learn.

I want to see the new software completed.

I believe replacing ACBLscore was the right decision, and that continuing to rely on ACBLscore for the foreseeable future is dangerous and will hamper technical innovation. The old program likely cannot do all that we want it to, and it cannot be updated except by someone with specific knowledge of the old technology with which it was built. Here at Bridge Winners we have not been able to integrate our online entry system with ACBLscore and have been eagerly awaiting the release of a modern system with which we could communicate.

I am surprised and disappointed that the BOD did not demand a detailed explanation and accounting of funds in Las Vegas; I hope these will be forthcoming in Providence.

ACBL Response

 

We provided Robert Hartman with a copy of this article prior to publication to allow him an opportunity to supplement or correct the information we received from our sources.  He requested that the following appear alongside our piece in its full, unedited form.  

September 12, 2014

 

Dear Adam,

I respect Bridge Winners as a vibrant online community where people who are passionate about our game can learn, share, and together gain a deeper understanding about a variety of bridge-related topics. That’s why it is disappointing that your opinion piece about the ACBL’s ongoing efforts to upgrade its scoring software draws on inaccurate information and fosters false impressions rather than understanding.

Many in our organization, including myself, have shared their time and perspective with you; some have corresponded with you to help you understand the decisions that have been made and the benefits they are expected to yield.

I am not going to correct everything I find inaccurate, imprecise, or misleading. Honestly, there is just too much. I am not going to dispute others who may not be quoted accurately, even if their alleged recollections are at variance with reality. However, there is one statement in your article that I absolutely agree with:

“…There was not anything glaringly wrong with ACBLScore, simply that it needed modernization...”

This is a true statement. Ultimately, the truth of this statement is at the core of the decisions that have been made this spring and summer to focus our efforts, energies, and resources on enhancing ACBLScore in a defined and achievable way. 

Over the years, several attempts have been made to rewrite the ACBL scoring software. Other efforts have come up short despite everyone’s best intentions and efforts.

The fact is that we are on track to maintain the integrity of our scoring software, provide a solid foundation for future expansion, and deliver results that will work for our members promptly and affordably. Our current phase will be field tested at selected sectional tournaments before the upcoming NABC in November. Our plan is to roll out additional features and new functionality over time that meet our members' needs using a logical, phased approach. 

Sincerely, 

Robert Hartman

CEO

American Contract Bridge League

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