Asian Games 2018: India fields a squad of bridge players for the first time

Photo: iStock
Contract bridge is a game that often feels out of step with the times. Two-thirds of India’s population is under 30 and eight out of 10 bridge players are older than that. What’s more, almost anybody who plays the game concurs with Craig Gower, the 60-something South African international, who says, “There must be plenty of 25-year-olds who will eventually be better at bridge than me. But my 40 years of experience gives me the edge right now.”

While the mechanics of the game are relatively simple and easy enough for a young person with an agile mind to master, there are two areas where experience counts for more than calculating skills. One soft skill is communication with a partner, since bridge uses a very restricted vocabulary to convey information and nuance. The other soft skill is what bridge players call “table presence”. Those skills can take decades to master. The Israeli pair, Adi Asulin and Hila Levy, started playing together when they were both 11. It took over 10 years before they started winning world titles.

The game is played by two partnerships of two players each. A pack of cards is dealt out into four hands of 13 cards each. Aces are high, twos are low. The object is to capture as many tricks as possible. Partnerships must state how many tricks they can capture, before they play the first card.

So there are two phases. In the first, the auction, the partnerships bid, stating how many tricks they may capture. The higher bidders set the contract and fix the trump suit, or no trump suit, if they prefer. Then, the cards are played, with one hand (“the dummy”) exposed. That means every player sees 26 cards (his own and the dummy’s) and every player must guess the distribution of the other 26 cards. Good players can often lay out a blueprint of the entire hand within a couple of plays.

The winners at the 16th HCL International Bridge Championship

The communication skills referred start with cooperating with the partner during the auction. Every bid may carry many meanings and those meanings must be explained to the opponents, too. After the contract is fixed, the defenders who try to break it must cooperate and signal to each other as best they can. Again, any signals a partnership uses must be explained to the other side.

If this sounds complicated, it is. There are many different bidding systems and multiple popular signalling methods. Even long-established partnerships can have awful misunderstandings. Card-play is also complicated, involving counting cards and guessing at the layout of hidden ones. Bridge is a game of incomplete information. Sometimes it’s impossible to learn where the cards lie by pure logic.

That’s when table presence enters the equation. This is best described as deciphering body language or “tells”, as poker players call it. As Sabine Auken, the German world champion says, “The slightest twitch, the blink of an eye or a minimal change in posture can give away the lie of the cards to somebody with great table presence.”

Tournament rules and physical set-ups are designed to even out luck and prevent partnerships exchanging unethical information. Cards are dealt by computerised dealing machines and the same cards are played out at every table. Performances are compared with luck eliminated.

Bids are made using printed index cards to prevent vocal intonation carrying information. In addition, matches can involve screens during auctions, to prevent partners seeing each other. If a player asks for an explanation of a bid, the explanation is written, again to prevent exchange of unethical information.

Returning to the age equation, bridge is now a recognised sport at the Asiad. India will field a squad of 26 bridge players at the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang that begin today. Almost everybody in the bridge squad is over 40 and there are quite a few 60-year-olds. Maybe this will change as bridge starts being taught in schools.

A partcipant at the event

The oldest player, Rita Choksi, is 79 and the oldest person to ever represent India at an Asian Games. It’s likely that bridge squads from other nations will have similar age profiles. Choksi has played in multiple bridge events for India, but this is different. She’s looking forward to playing under the flag as part of a larger contingent. As she puts it, the combination of her hobbies of yoga, bridge and amateur theatricals have kept her in better shape than many of her younger compatriots.

The story of how the World Bridge Federation has plotted to get Olympic recognition for decades will have to be told another time. Apart from all the political manoeuvring, it involved negotiating all sorts of details, such as a careful examination of the banned substances list. Bridge as a sport requires physical stamina but not strength. Many older bridge players suffer from age-related chronic ailments and require regular doses of beta-blockers and insulin. Some even need steroids. So bridge federations have had to work with doctors to figure out what is permissible.

Another of the participants in Jakarta and Palembang is Kiran Nadar, who is a leading light of the mixed team along with her partner, B Satyanarayana (in mixed events, each partnership includes both genders). Nadar is also a multiple international, and the moving spirit behind the largest regular bridge event in India, the HCL International Bridge Championship.

Particpiants at the event

The 16th edition of the event concluded this past Tuesday at the JW Marriott Hotel in Aerocity, New Delhi. The tournament always draws massive participation, partly due to its $275,000 prize fund and also due to its impeccable organisation. The playing conditions are close to perfect, the logistics management is good and the entire event in all its sections is viewable online, real-time. As Auken, who played for Hemant Lal’s team says, “This is one of the best events I’ve ever attended and I’ll do my best to come back every year.”

There were 160 teams from several countries and about 800 pairs playing the six-day long festival. The winners of the Gold Event, “South Sweden”, comprised the South African pair, Alon Apteker and Craig Gower, and the Swedish pair, Anders Morath and Sven-Ake Bjerregard. After six days of tense matches, South Sweden pipped Nadar’s team, Formidables, in a tight final. The match was decided on the last two deals of a 64-deal final when South Sweden nosed ahead. Nadar says she had mixed feelings. “As a competitive player, I would have obviously preferred to have won. But then again, it might have been a little embarrassing as the host team.”

Events like HCL offer international exposure. The payoff from that is becoming evident, with more Indian pros participating in big-name events in the US and Europe. Gower says, “Even in the Apartheid days, about half the bridge players of Durban were Indian. There are players of Indian origin across all of Africa. There’s no question about talent but you need experience and exposure to toughen up.” As other corporate sponsors get into the act, India could develop a circuit that takes it further up the global rankings ladder.