‘To Bid or Not to Bid’. There was not an iota of doubt in Pranab Bardhan’s mind that in the ocean of books that was the Antarjatik Kolkata Boimela, Larry Cohen’s latest book was the only Bridge title he needed to find that year. Over the years, the 60-year-old would add to the million-strong footfall of the country’s largest book fair, and stock up on Bridge’s biggest Hand-hacks — Charles Goren, Hugh Kelsey and even the occasional Omar Sharif compilation while poring over every detail to meticulously add to his layers of knowledge on the game.
On Saturday, in the company of his partner Shibnath Dey Sarkar — known to the world by his daaknaam Kachhu — Bardhan would make all those trawls through the book bazaar count. In what must be the only Asian Games gold that came on the back of reading books – the duo lorded the Duplicate Men’s Pairs at Jakarta. The sport has more literature than chess, and it was finally the two men who filed away meticulous newspaper cuttings of bridge columns, who ended with India’s first ever gold in the sport.
Bridge the world over has supreme opulence pushing for its cause – from some of India’s top tycoons to Indonesia’s biggest conglomerate and even Bill Gates and Warren Buffet internationally, the sport has no dearth of riches backing the brains. Sarkar and Bardhan recall humbler beginnings in their careers. “When we started travelling for tournaments, Railway concessions was all we got – for Sleeper Class. Those tickets were never confirmed, so it would be Calcutta-Delhi or Calcutta-Punjab scrounging for seats,” Bardhan, 60, recalls.
He considers it his biggest achievement – after the Asiad gold of course – that they paved the way for younger bridge professionals to travel with more comforts than them. “Now, nothing short of Rajdhani or air flights,” he says, happy that top Indian businesses have found it worthy to employ bridge pros.
The two were employed for a long time by Navayuga Engineering, playing for Vijayawada industrialist and bridge-buff CV Rao’s team. Sarkar – the ponytailed Kachhu – found himself a complimenting partner in Bardhan, an unassuming, quiet person also from Kolkata. The duo played an aggressive brand of bridge and were one of the most consistent pairings around. It brought a lot of glee to the entire team, considering the two earnest professionals – Kachhu also being the most ebullient and a perennial prankster – would go on to lead the pair’s event from Round 1 through 5, and land India’s first-ever gold.
Both players learnt the sport from their parents and have an enchanting take on the cerebral czar of card games – Bardhan at Jadavpur-Santoshpur and Sarkar at Howrah. “I’ve learnt to love each and every Hand dealt to me. The same combination of cards – split between your partner and opponents – that series will never happen again, the odds are next to zero. So you enjoy every hand dealt,” Bardhan says.
In 2002, he confronted the usual refrain: of bridge not being a serious sport. Scheduled to play a World Cup at Montreal, his passport was nearing its expiry date, and he’d fast-track it, with the matter reaching the passport officer. “That was the Left government then, and we managed to get the passport to the top officer. But he would say: You are travelling to Canada to gamble? Imagine an IAS-level officer with such ignorance. Of course I explained to him, and the passport came through,” he would say. Asked if it’s a sport that the wealthy invariably slide smoothly into, he shoots back:
“Haan, bridge ameer logon ka fashion hai. Lekin koi bhi dimaag lagaakar yeh jeet sakta hai,” Sarkar (55) would say, having pipped three Chinese pairs to it.
The two are not known to talk much to each other beyond the sport – not that they are allowed to chat while playing either – but a fair few times, defeats have cascaded into loud back-and-forths of “Tui pagol” the way squabbling bridge partners clash.
“We stay angry for 1 hour maximum, then we are ok after that,” Sarkar says. There’s constant laughter and a whiff of a prank around the always-upbeat Sarkar. Of course with the gold medal at stake, the two seniors pulled on their game faces and got the job done. They would stand on the podium, roll the fist into a ball and sing-along the national anthem with a sloganeer’s enthusiasm. You could lose them in the crowd – going in search of noodles they craved for a later-than-usual lunch at 4 pm. Little to no swagger, just the best Dummy play pulled off from that part of India, since Bob Biswas.