The Transnational Youth Bridge World Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy, which ended on Sunday, saw some innovations. First, there was a new age category – under 31s. Secondly and more interestingly, the World Bridge Federation has decided to allow transnational pairs to participate. It was a nod of recognition to how things have changed during the pandemic, with people all over the world playing online.
Tournament bridge has two formats. It can be played in “pairs”, with each partnership battling with all other partnerships. Or it’s played as a team game, where two pairs form a team of four. Typically, a partnership at a bridge table is North-South, and the other East-West. In a tag team match, Team A will be seated North-South at one table and Team B will be seated North-South at the other.
In both pair and team formats, luck is eliminated by a simple expedient: the same cards are dealt to each table and the scores are compared. It doesn’t matter if you sit, say NS, and get dealt good cards or bad cards; all others who sit in NS receive the same cards as you. The winners are those who maximize their scores.
The championships started with the age-group pairs and India’s 27-member team (including coaches and non-playing captains) achieved a terrific result, picking up two gold and two silver medals in the pair tests. Incidentally, several members of the contingent almost did not make it to Italy. The pandemic has led to backlogs in visa processing, and the documents went through the system at the eleventh hour after some behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts.
One of those gold medals came from a transnational pair. Anshul Bhatt, 13, from Mumbai, teamed up with his 15-year-old pal, Darwin Li, from Toronto. They won the under-16 gold medal in pairs. Anshul is probably the youngest bridge world champion ever.
The two get along like a house on fire, and they’ve earned quite the reputation playing online over the past two or three years. But Anshul and Darwin hadn’t actually met face-to-face before joining the Championships. They are both considered veterans as they have been playing competitively for several years.
The other gold medal went to the Kolkata duo of Sagnik Roy and Sayantan Kushari who comfortably won the under-26 group. Sagnik and Sayantan are quite well known on domestic and foreign circuits. But this is their first world title. Sayantan is, of course, the son of the late Grandmaster Pritish Kushari. Kushari (1956-2021) was a multiple champion who survived cancer but sadly passed away during the second wave of Covid. One of the silver medals went to Souvik Kar and Pritam Das in the open section, which is a kind of consolation category for those who are eliminated at the later stages of the age group events.
The other silver medal went to the pair of Kalpana Gujjar and Vidhya Patel who came close to winning the women’s under-26 section, being just edged out in second place by the French pair of Clara Bouton and Margaux Kurek- Beaulieu.
Kalpana and Vidhya have perhaps the most interesting history in contemporary bridge. They are from Raibidpura, a small village in Khargone district, Madhya Pradesh with a population of around 5,000. Raibidpura is not particularly prosperous – there are only a handful of vehicle owners and most of the population lives from agriculture. But Raibidpura is very unusual in one respect; every household has a few bridge players! Many years ago a district collector who loved the game posted here. As he lacked partners, he decided to teach the game to the locals, who surprise, surprise, got into it.
Thus, this supposedly elitist urban game (which is actually played seriously in the alleys of the popular districts of Calcutta and Naples) has settled in the backwaters of an obscure MP village. Many residents of Raibidpura play on the national bridge circuit and online, and Kalpana-Vidhya is obviously extraordinarily talented. They’ve been playing seriously for eight years, starting when they were around 13. Neither owned a laptop until the middle of the pandemic, when the bridge fraternity stepped up and donated laptops to them.
There are other members of the Indian bridge team who come from humble backgrounds. The women’s team’s non-playing captain, Bindiya Naidu, is focused on coaching this demographic in the vernacular schools of Bengaluru.
But the others, regardless of income level, all come from urban backgrounds where access to coaching and regular practice against strong competitors is relatively easy. In this sense, the online bridge (which really took off after the pandemic) and Internet connectivity have opened up new perspectives. Indian bridge organizers have been working for some time to keep the youngsters interested and maybe, maybe, the great results here will help generate some buzz.