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Bridging the age gap: Three Indian juniors make it to Junior Bridge World Championship

Braving busy school life and ‘gambling’ taboo, three Indian juniors have made it to the Junior Bridge World Championship. Next challenge, however, is to find partners of their own age.

Bridging the age gap India juniors playing bridge at the Matunga Gymkhana.

In a cards room at the Matunga Gymkhana in Mumbai, a bastion for seniors, three ‘kids’ saunter in unblinkingly to play a tournament of bridge. The elders, a mixture of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, a handful younger and some much older, are shocked and surprised by the new entrants. “Wow,” comes the first mono-syllabic reaction, according to Pankaj Tanna, a 63-year-old bridge enthusiast. “Have they finally started playing bridge at schools?” he wonders.

It’s a natural reaction from the seniors.

“Our thinking has always been for a sport like this to get younger players, it needs to be introduced at school levels. So when we saw these kids come in, that’s the first thing we thought.”

Those reactions came some years back, and those ‘kids’ are now staples in the cards room. Soon they’ll be going to Opatija, Croatia for the Junior World Championship. Still, they remain the regular misfits in a sport mostly played by seniors. “You need to have a lot of patience and time to play bridge,” Tanna explains. “That’s why it’s the oldies who play it because they’ve retired and have the time. Kids have school and then they get jobs, so they’re busy.

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“The other problem,” Tanna adds. “Is that at least in India card games are considered taboo because of the whole gambling element. Bridge is not gambling, but since it is played with cards, it’s misunderstood.”

That ‘taboo’ didn’t exist for 13-year-old Kunj Chheda though. Hailing from Kutch, playing cards is a favoured family pastime in the Jain community he belongs to. The most popular game played there is called ‘No Trump’ or ‘Notrum,’ – akin to the top call in ascending order above club, diamond, heart and spade in contract bridge

“He was probably four or so when he started playing cards with his grandparents playing cards,” explains his mother Nita Chheda. “If he saw anyone free at home he’d catch them to play cards, and he couldn’t sleep without playing a game or two at night. So that was ideal punishment for me to give him; if he misbehaved, then no card games for him that night.”

He hadn’t heard of a full-fledged game of contract bridge though until he joined a boarding school in Mumbai four years ago and was introduced to it during a summer camp. “The teacher there called it ‘Keeda’ or insect,” Kunj recalls. “The name itself sounded cool. So I started playing and since it’s similar to Notrum it was easy to get into.”

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The oldest of the three boys, 15-year-old Tilakraj Chowdhury only started playing the game in January, after his father Debraj, who had been playing for four years, introduced him to it. Since then, the teenager has partnered his father for each of the weekend tournaments they enter in the city.

“Whenever I make a mistake, my father tells me about it after the match and explains what I should have done,” he says. “So I think about it and try and analyse what happened. Often those discussions continue even over the dinner table.”

“It’s something completely different,” says Debraj Chowdhury, Tilakraj’s father who introduced the sport to the teenager. “I’m an engineer, so I’ve worked in the corporate industry all my life. I hate it. I don’t want him or my younger son Tirthraj (9) to get into it.”

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Meanwhile, the youngest of the trio, 10-year-old Anshul Bhatt, who will be competing at the HCL Bridge event in New Delhi – one of the world’s richest events with a total prize purse of Rs 1.8 crore or USD 262,000 – started playing four years back when he couldn’t find a chess coach.

“He started playing chess when he was about three or four,” explains his father Mehul Bhatt. “But we couldn’t find a coach here. But he was always into maths and used to play around with cards and do calculations. So bridge seemed like a good option.”

They’re now known names among their ‘friends who are much older’ (as Anshul puts it). But they are still novelties among the seniors, and the subject of much attention and encouragement. “Almost every time I play a tournament, seniors come up to me and tell me I’m doing well, and then they say to please keep playing,” Tilakraj says. “They say that it’s very easy to get young people to come and play, but very difficult to make them stay. So they hope we don’t leave.”

Under the watch of seniors

Tanna explains further that the seniors make it their own responsibility to keep the youngsters improving and upbeat. “We’ve always had the thinking that we need younger people in bridge for it to survive. Bridge players are competitive so we don’t go easy on them, but we help them out at every step because we don’t want to demoralise them. We need them.”

Dealing with adults has been a breeze for the youngsters. It gives them the opportunity to play and learn. “Sometimes when I make a mistake, the seniors, even an opponent, will tell me I’ve made a mistake and then let me change the cards,” Kunj says.

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Finding partners for junior championships has been the bigger struggle. For the trick-card taking game that needs a strong memory and sharp mind – requirements that make the sport a favourite for the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – good team chemistry is essential. But in this age group, younger guns have been harder to find. For Anshul especially, it’s finding a partner in the same age group.

“My partner for Croatia is about 15. So next year he’ll go into the Under-21 category and I’ll be in the Under-16s. So I’ll have to find someone new,” he says.

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Explains Arvind Vaidya, chief organiser of the tournament in Mumbai: “Abroad, there are teams that are sponsored or owned by big corporates or personalities who provide them with everything. It’s essentially a full-time job and sometimes players get salaries worth millions. But in India there is no such system like that. So players mostly have to fend for themselves.”

The game is much more evolved among the younger generation in the west. The 2017 World Player of the Year Dennis Bilde, for example, is 29 and had started winning top titles in his mid-20s. In India though, the game hasn’t quite roused the younger generation, which is why the trio in Mumbai, despite being on the circuit for a few years, are still considered novelties.

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Often, partners can get into arguments on the bridge table, but the youngsters keep it jovial. They realise their lack of experience and take the game in their stride. And now, they’re wholly consumed by it.

Anshul spends hours poring over a folder filled with match scenarios for him to analyse; Tilakraj has forgone all his previous ‘bad’ habits of watching excessive television and playing computer games, and instead practices bridge online as often as possible. Kunj meanwhile, is looking forward to his first trip abroad. “When I first heard he’s going to Croatia, I told him it’s nice that he will get a new place to see,” says Nita. “But he was only interested in playing bridge. His thinking is so different.”

First published on: 03-08-2019 at 12:30:15 am
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