The Hangzhou Qi-Yuan Hall is unlike any other venue at the ongoing Asian Games. It is a towering skyscraper more than 100 feet high, in the city centre, and can be easily mistaken for just another corporate building inside a concrete jungle.
But this is the venue that houses the mind sports – Chess, Go, Xiangqi and bridge. From the 12th floor of the building, the athletes, who appear well into their 50s and 60s, get down the lift and step outside the building to light up their cigarettes in between sessions.
“Most of the bridge players smoke,” says Pakistan team’s Farukkh Liaqat, as he takes a puff from his vape. “It’s long hours of play from morning 9 until 8 or 9 p.m. It’s just like coffee or tea for us, and helps us concentrate during long sessions.” The Qi-Yuan hall is the only venue where there is an outdoor ashtray right at the technical official’s exit door, and it appears to be the busiest spot in the venue.
This activity usually happens throughout the day as the players indulge in what they call are ‘game of percentages’, ‘anti-percentage options’, ‘permutations and combinations’ and ‘working with incomplete information’.
Bridge is a four vs four ‘trick-taking card game’. ‘Easily the greatest source of enjoyment that four people can have with a pack of cards’ is how the official website of the World Bridge organisation chooses to describe the sport.
The game starts with two players from each team sitting at a point of a compass, where the north plays the south, and the east plays the west. The players then sort their cards by rank and suit spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs from the 13 cards they each receive.
Opponents are separated by a wall with an opening below for dealing cards to each other. The game is broken down into two phases: bidding and play, and the objective of the game is to make tricks and bidding to make contracts.
At 2 p.m. on Friday, Indian team’s Sandeep Thakral takes out a paper from his bag and writes down notes before passing it on to his opponent from Hong Kong during one of the sessions of the final of the men’s team event. Sandeep then carries the bag around everywhere that contains the system notes, where they document their system and method of play on a piece of paper. The system notes are then made available for the opponents to go through. The sport does not encourage spectators in the arena and is played in near-silence with just three other officials in the room.
And if this wasn’t complex enough, players have a limited legal vocabulary through which they can communicate with their partners.
To medal at the Asian Games, a team needs to sit at the table for a minimum of ‘90 gruelling hours’ in the space of 10 days. The Indian team of Sandeep, Jaggy Shivdasani, Raju Tolani, Rajeshwar Tewari, Sumit Mukherjee and Ajay Prabhkar Khare did just that to come away with a maiden Asian Games silver medal at the team event on Friday.
This group of men, who are aged between 45 and 65, have primary jobs, which include software consultancy, and travel business. There is a chartered accountant, a senior manager at HCL, the CEO of a company and just one professional bridge player. “I am 49 years old, and I am the youngest,” laughs Sandeep. “We have two who are 65, two who are 57-58 and two above 50.”
Bridge players usually don’t sport the quintessential athletic figure, marked by a sculpted physique or six-pack abs. It is among a few sports where the athlete looks just like anyone else, with a more realistic physical manifestation of ageing. Pakistan’s Masood Mazhar is 78 years old, a full 69 years older than the youngest participant (Phillippines skateboarder Mazel Paris Alegado), making him the oldest player at the Hangzhou Asian Games. One bridge athlete was wheeled out of the venue because she had trouble with her spine.
“Unfortunately, bridge players [from our generation] tend to have a bad lifestyle,” says Sandeep, who won silver here in the men’s team event. “It’s long hours of play… then long hours of analysis at the end of the day. If you lived with the bridge team, you would find us discussing what we did very late into the night. It has very little physical activity. And all of that gets associated with smoke and liquor…(laughs).”
Sandeep claims the prize money to play in bridge doesn’t cover their expenses when playing tournaments. So why do they put themselves through the rigour?
“The most important thing is the mental satisfaction. It’s all about the mind. It’s about the satisfaction you get when you solve a puzzle, especially one that doesn’t have enough clues. The joy of finishing a cryptic crossword, the mental thrill you get out of it, is something else. It’s not the journey, it’s the result,” says Sandeep, who has been playing the sport for 31 years.
The sport doesn’t have many professional players in the country, and it’s mostly passion and sacrifice which take some of them this far.
“It was hard in the early days,” says Sandeep, who started playing bridge in 1992, right after he got married. “It’s hard to understand what kind of commitment this game requires and how many days you are travelling in a year. Bridge is not [something] with which you can make a living in India. For most of us, it’s something that you do or find time for it.
“You compromise on other things [like] business or family to be able to do this. There was a time when I was out for more than 250 days a year for bridge and work combined. It’s tough with young kids and a business to run. All your vacation or your work gets planned around a tournament schedule.”
The 2018 Asian Games was the first edition when bridge was introduced in a major multi-nation event. Initially, there was reluctance for bridge to be added to the Asiad programme because of card games’ association with gambling. While the sport is now part of the second-biggest multi-sport event for a second successive tournament, Sandeep says it’s still a big taboo in India.
“It’s unfortunate to see that Chess is so popular in India, but bridge which is more or as fascinating as Chess, is struggling for social acceptance. It’s fascinating because of the complexities,” says Sandeep, who began playing chess during his childhood before switching to bridge.
“How is it that we produce chess prodigies every few years but [we do] not have a Go prodigy or people who dedicate their lives to bridge?” he asks. “You will have parents who go all over the world with young chess players from the age of 10. I am where I am [Asian Games] and my wife would not even let my own kids learn bridge. That’s a tough hurdle to cross. With time hopefully, things are slow, but hopefully they are changing,” he says.
For Sandeep, who opted to stay in India to pursue his ambition of playing bridge at the highest level, winning an Asian Games silver medal is a red-letter day for him.
“This has been a dream. It is what we all gave everything up for,” he says. “I studied at IIT Bombay. While my friends moved abroad, I chose to stay, and I wanted to play bridge and play for India. Hopefully, in the next few years before my bridge life ends, we will be able to make a mark on the world stage.”