India’s bridge victory: From MP village to Mumbai-Toronto pair

The World Youth Bridge Transnational Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy, which concluded on Sunday, saw a couple of innovations. First, there was a new age-category — Under-31. Second and more interestingly, the World Bridge Federation decided to allow transnational pairs to participate. This was a nod of recognition to the way things have changed during the pandemic, with people from all over the world playing online.

Tournament bridge has two formats. It can be played as “pairs” with each partnership fighting it out with every other partnership. Or it’s played as a team game, where two pairs form a team of four. Conventionally, one partnership at a bridge table sits North-South, and the other East-West. In a team match, Team A will sit North-South at one table and Team B will sit North-South at the other.

In both pairs and teams formats, luck is eliminated by a simple expedient: the same cards are dealt out at each table and scores are compared. It doesn’t matter if you sit, let’s say N-S, and get dealt great cards, or miserable cards; everybody else who sits N-S gets dealt the same cards as you. The winners are the people who maximise their scores.

The championships started with the age-group pairs and the 27-member Indian squad (including coaches and non-playing captains) had a terrific result, snagging two golds and two silvers in the pairs events. Incidentally, several members of the contingent almost didn’t get to . The pandemic has led to backlogs in visa processing, and the paperwork went through the system at the eleventh hour after some back-channel diplomatic efforts.

One of those golds came from a transnational pair. Anshul Bhatt, 13-year-old from Mumbai, paired up with his 15-year-old buddy Darwin Li from Toronto. They won the Under-16 gold in the pairs. Anshul is probably the youngest world champion bridge has ever seen.

The two get on like a house on fire, and they’ve acquired quite the reputation playing online for the last two or three years. But Anshul and Darwin had actually not met face-to-face before they paired off at the championships. They’re both considered veterans since they’ve been playing competitively for several years.

The other gold went to the Kolkata pairing of Sagnik Roy and Sayantan Kushari who won the Under-26 group comfortably. Sagnik and Sayantan are pretty well-known on both domestic and overseas circuits. But this is their first world title. Sayantan is, of course, the late great master Pritish Kushari’s son. Kushari (1956-2021) was a multiple champion who survived cancer but unfortunately passed away in the Covid second wave. One of the silvers went to Souvik Kar and Pritam Das in the open section, which is a sort of consolation category for those who get knocked out at the latter stages of the age-group events.

The other silver went to the pair of Kalpana Gujjar and Vidhya Patel who came close to winning the Under-26 women’s section, being just edged into second place by the French pair of Clara Bouton and Margaux Kurek-Beaulieu.

Kalpana and Vidhya have perhaps the most interesting backstory in contemporary bridge. They hail from Raibidpura, a small village in Khargone district, Madhya Pradesh with a population of about 5,000. Raibidpura isn’t particularly prosperous — there are just a handful of vehicle owners and the bulk of the population lives by farming. But Raibidpura is highly unusual in one respect; every household has a couple of bridge players! Many years ago, a district collector who enjoyed the game was posted here. Since he was short of partners, he decided to teach the game to the locals, who surprise, surprise, took to it.

Hence, this supposedly elitist urban game (which is actually played seriously in the back lanes of lower-income areas of Kolkata and Naples) took hold in the backwaters of an obscure MP village. Quite a few Raibidpura residents play on the domestic bridge circuit and online, and Kalpana-Vidhya are obviously extraordinarily talented. They’ve been playing seriously for the last eight years, starting from around the age of 13. Neither possessed a laptop until the middle of the pandemic when the bridge fraternity rallied around and donated laptops to them.

There are other members of the Indian bridge squad who come from humble backgrounds. The non-playing captain of the women’s team, Bindiya Naidu, focusses on coaching that demographic in vernacular-medium Bengaluru schools.

But the rest, regardless of income levels, are all from urban backgrounds where access to coaching and regular practice against strong competitors are relatively easy. In that sense, online bridge (which really took off after the pandemic) and internet connectivity have opened up new vistas. Indian bridge organisers have been working for a while to get younger people interested and maybe, just maybe, the great results here will help to generate a buzz.

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