“How many tricks do you think there are in here,” Anshul Bhatt asks after drawing a set of numbers—divided into north and south—on a notepad. Two, he replies, in response to a wrong answer, because there are two cards. “Bridge is game of percentages,” he says. “You have to be computing while playing. That might seem intimidating. But once you get the hang of it, it’s logical and intuitive.”
On a Friday, a day before his 14th birthday and recovering from a throat infection which has kept him out of school in Mumbai, Bhatt tries this simple explanation of a complicated card game that’s brought him much success so far. Bhatt was the captain of the four-member team Blitz that won the under-16 title in the World Youth Transnational Bridge Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy, in August. He also topped in the triathlon and pairs (with Canadian Darwin Li) events, grabbing a total of three medals in the process.
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The World event was significant for the teenager in two other aspects. He received two pep talk calls from Sachin Tendulkar. Following his win, Bill Gates, a bridge enthusiast, congratulated him on Twitter using a Hindustan Times news article on Bhatt.
Bhatt considers winning the team event as especially gratifying, as they qualified for the semi-finals narrowly by one point. “I was struggling to sleep due to excitement (of winning the pairs’ event). So for the team qualifier, I was tired. If I don’t sleep, I can’t play. I sleep at least 9-10 hours most days, four hours more than most of my friends.”
Currently in Delhi for the $275,000 19th HCL International Bridge Championships that began on 11 October, Bhatt’s bond with bridge started at a very early age. He used to play simple card games with his grandparents from the age of four, and get irritated with them for not remembering their cards. Bhatt’s father Mehul, an investor in public markets, got him chess coaching. But that didn’t work out well because his tutor would always beat him on board and give him homework, which is one of Bhatt’s least favourite activities.
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So Mehul switched him to bridge, getting him a national master, R. Anbazhagan, as coach. He taught Bhatt for two years and then told the father that the child has outgrown the tutor. “Anbu sir” will be Bhatt’s partner in the HCL event. “When my dad was in college, he was introduced to bridge,” says Bhatt, grinning. “He wanted to learn but never got around to it. Initially, we both wanted to learn but once I stared picking it up fast, dad said instead of both of us becoming mediocre players, he should quit and I should focus more. That time, I was so young, I could not tell when I was hungry or sleepy. He was basically my bridge secretary.”
What Bhatt finds fascinating about bridge is the mystery and challenge it provides. “Every board is a new puzzle I am trying to solve. I love the analytical aspect—constantly thinking and challenging your mind to come up with new possibilities. On the bridge table, in a 7-minute board, you may think this guy is just throwing cards but there is a lot that goes on. You are thinking of five tricks in the future.”
Before the World event, Bhatt had about 60-70 hours of practice a week, working with his coach, Keyzad Anklesaria, during the day, and with his Canadian partner late into the night. His school—the Dhirubhai Ambani International School—has been supportive of his choice and is tolerant of Bhatt missing school for tournaments. In fact, Bhatt has even started a bridge club in school. “One of the most amazing things is you can play for 30-40 years and you are still learning. A deck of cards is 52, each person gets 13. There are five multiplied by 10 to the power 28 possible combinations. In your lifetime, even if you play 24 hours, it’s highly unlikely you will get the same hand twice. It’s impossible to get bored.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.