The HCL Bridge Festival consists of a week-long sequence of events, with over $270,000 equivalent in prize money. The 15th edition of this event saw a massive contingent of world-class players arriving at the J W Marriott Hotel in Aerocity, New Delhi. Multiple teams and pairs events were scattered across the venue and the hotel’s corridors were overrun with folks discussing arcana about the game.
Bridge, as some readers probably know, is the most complex of card games. It’s played with a full pack of 52 cards by four people, divided into two opposed pairs. The pairs first compete in an auction where they bid to fix a contract. Then they play out the cards with one pair (the declarer and dummy) trying to fulfil the contract, and the other pair (defenders) trying to prevent the contract being fulfilled.
That’s the basic game. The tournament versions are more complicated. The same cards are played out at multiple tables in pairs events and the scores are then compared to see which pair did best. In teams events, the same cards are played out at two tables with one team sitting East-West at one table and North-South at the other, and vice-versa for the other team. So each team has a shot with the same cards and their results are then compared.
Anshul Bhatt with 90-year old Benito Garozzo
This comparative element removes luck from the game. Just to ensure there’s no sleight-of-hand by some magician, big events use computer-dealt cards. The bidding is done silently, with screens placed across the table, to ensure that pairs cannot influence each other with vocal tones, secret gestures or facial expressions. Every bid must also be explained to the opponents to ensure that there are no secret agreements. If the partnership has worked out defensive signals (playing specific cards to encourage or discourage partner to play a suit), that too must be disclosed. Good players can rapidly count out the hand and figure out the nuances of who has played which card and why.
Most of the players at the HCL were middle-aged or older, with a smattering of teenagers and 20-somethings. The youngsters were mainly Europeans, for bridge is taught in schools in several European countries (and now in China as well). There was a team of college students from Tilburg, Holland and several young Swedes and Danes. There were the 24-year-old stars from Israel, reigning women’s world champions, Hila Levi and Adi Asulin, who also won one of the pairs events at HCL. There were also a few Indian teenagers, mainly the children of bridge-playing parents.
By far the youngest player at HCL was eight-year-old Anshul Bhatt of Bombay Scottish School, Mumbai. Bhatt, who was born in October 2008, is also the youngest international to have ever represented India. In fact, he was the youngest player in the field at the 5th World Youth Bridge Championships in Lyon, France, this August.
Bhatt (his name “Anshul”, as he explains, “means the first radiant rays of the sun”) took the oath there on behalf of all participants as the flag-bearer. He also won the Joan Gerard Award for aptitude, fair play and sportsmanship.
Bridge is not generally reckoned to be a young person’s game. It takes a while to learn the basics. The game involves sharp calculation and pattern-recognition where young people do have an edge. But the real barrier to playing top-quality bridge is learning how to communicate with the partner. Communication and cooperation are key components and both require soft skills that young people take time to learn. Keeping one’s cool when things go wrong is another skill that requires some degree of maturity. This is also why computer programs don’t play great bridge — communication requires nuances that silicon monsters cannot handle.
For example, Levi-Ansulin (bridge pairs are usually hyphenated in convention) have been playing together since they were 11, and it still took them 10-odd years before they surmounted that communication hurdle and started winning regularly at international level.
Most young bridge players learn the game at school or from their parents. For example, Sayantan Kushari, the 19-year-old international from Kolkata, learnt from his father, Prithish, who’s a multiple international. Dennis Bilde, the 27-year-old world champion from Denmark, grew up playing bridge with his parents who’ve both represented Denmark. His parents, Morten and Dorte Bilde, were at the HCL. Dennis’ team lost in the finals, while his parents’ team was knocked out in the semis.
Using those benchmarks, Bhatt’s progression is truly astonishing. Bhatt’s parents did not play bridge at all, though his dad, Mehul, an investment professional, has learnt by watching his son. Dennis Bilde says, “Anshul has the mind of a 25-year-old who’s been playing bridge all his life.”
Bhatt learnt the game just a couple of years ago. He used to play a few other card games “for fun” with his grandparents and he would, as he says, “get angry because they didn’t calculate”. His father figured out that there was something special about his five-year-old son’s card-recognition ability and arranged for some coaching from the Mumbai-based bridge teacher, “Mr Anbu”. The boy showed an immediate affinity. Bhatt played his first tournament in January 2016 at the Indian Gymkhana Interstate and there’s been no looking back.
The partnership factor has also been amazing. Bhatt met his international partner, Anirudh Prakash, who is all of 14, at a coaching camp in Nashik, this April. That camp saw a total of 54 youngsters, who aspired to represent India, being whittled down to 28 “possibles”. Bhatt made that first cut and Bhatt-Prakash then placed eighth in the Open National Pairs — ahead of many seasoned internationals. At a second selection camp, they qualified to make the final six, which meant the India team. That camp was massively intensive with long hours of classroom coaching and playing practice and although he found it fatiguing, he also found it exhilarating.
Bhatt says he loves “calculation and analysis of cards and also learning bidding systems and I also love playing bridge because I meet new friends. I hope to keep learning from my mistakes and improving next year and the year after that as well”.
He might be a prodigy but in other respects, the young bridge maven remains a normal high-energy youngster. He was practising a version of Parkour across the Marriott lobby while we met up and spoke, vaulting couches to burn off excess energy in between answering questions. While he was perfectly happy to chat with me again, he requested me not to call between 5 pm and 7.30 pm “because that’s when I play cricket or football or just play with my friends”.
His favourite subject (take a wild guess) is mathematics. He watches Khan Academy online maths courses for the sheer pleasure of it and he relaxes with Sudoku. His ambitions are expansive: “Maybe I’d like to be an engineer, a scientist, a businessman or a cricketer.” And yes, he games a lot — he wants to be a super-gamer and game designer.
Maybe, his unusual combination of gifts will lead him to design world-beating bridge programs, or maybe he’s “ just” going to play great bridge. But there’s no doubt this youngster will stay connected to the game.