Kolkata: On a sunny February afternoon, around 40 middle-aged and elderly gentlemen and one lady sit around their tables inside the stuffy innards of the Kshudiram Anushilan Kendra—an indoor stadium in Kolkata. The grave-like silence is broken only by the whirring of the giant overhead fans and occasional announcements on the microphone as the participants at the national-level bridge championship organized by the Calcutta Bridge Club play for prestige and a handsome prize fund of Rs3.45 lakh.
World over, bridge has followers such as Omar Sharif, Paul Allen, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and the deceased Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and is the only mind sport other than chess that is recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Yet, if the organizers of the tournament in Kolkata are to be believed, bridge hasn’t really taken off in India because not too many youngsters take interest in the sport.
Sport for seniors? The national-level bridge championship held in Kolkata recently. Most players of the game in India are middle aged. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“You won’t see any youngsters here…the average age (of players) is between 55 and 60,” says Debasish Ray, secretary of the club and an accomplished player himself, who represented India at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in the US in 2002.
The predicament of bridge becomes starker when compared with chess. Whereas chess currently has some 4,115 players registered with the All India Chess Federation, bridge has some 13,000. “Yet chess is thriving while we are in decline,” says Ray.
Echoing his views, Sharad Tilak, an international master in chess as well as an accomplished bridge player, says, “Cards are still not held in high esteem in our society, and if you go to a chess tournament these days, you’d see at least half the players are youngsters —children below 15 years —but it’s not so in bridge. I think parents don’t encourage children to play bridge because cards are naturally linked to gambling.” But there are a few youngsters such as 15-year-old Karan Sharma, who are accomplished both at chess and bridge and buck that trend. “I used to play chess for a long time but seeing my dad play bridge on the net I got hooked and my dad coached me on from there,” says Karan, whose father Vinay played for India two decades ago.
The class X student of Mumbai’s Poddar Lilavatibai School, who has been receiving tuition in bridge from his father for the past two years, was part of the Indian junior (under-26) team that went to the World Mind Games in Beijing last year. “Though we finished second last, it was a great learning experience,” says Karan.
According to Vinay, Karan’s father, the lack of an iconic player such as Viswanathan Anand, the current world chess champion, is another reason why bridge hasn’t spread among youngsters in the way chess has. Parents go to the extent of allowing their children to give up studies for chess because they want to see their children grow up to become another Anand, says Vinay.
But things seem to be changing, albeit slowly. A school, Samadhan Bridge Academy, has been founded in Saki Naka, Mumbai, to train youngsters and currently has some 100 students. What’s more, companies such as HCL Technologies Ltd, Tolani Shipping Co. Ltd, Shree Cements Ltd, Bajaj Auto Ltd, Global Tele-Systems Ltd, India Glycols Ltd and Phoenix Mills Ltd have pledged support to a trust that will not only support and groom young bridge players from all over India, but will also sponsor their trips to tournaments abroad, according to Anand Samant, who heads the Bridge Federation of India’s junior development programme.
The game is also holding out in Chennai. “I guess it’s the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Madras influence,” says Vinod Kumar, Karan’s teammate to Beijing. Kumar, alongwith Guthi Rajasekhar, 23, are alumni of the IIT and attribute their initiation to the sport to the ‘bridge culture’ prevalent there. “I started playing bridge in 2005 only after I joined IIT Madras in 2003,” says Rajasekhar, who admits that despite the efforts of the Tamil Nadu Bridge Association, bridge is losing out to chess because of lack of social acceptance.
Change needed: The lack of an iconic player such as Viswanathan Anand, the current world chess champion, is cited as a reason why bridge hasn’t spread among youngsters in the way chess has. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“Parents in Chennai want their child to be a prodigy in the Viswanathan Anand mould,” says Rajasekhar. “(But) bridge’s icons such as K.R. Venkatraman—also an IIT Madras product—can hardly match up to that kind of parental expectation,” says Kumar, 22. Despite the duo’s success, the numbers haven’t increased. “At the T. Nagar Social Club where we play, there hasn’t been any notable increase,” says Rajasekhar.
However, if Samant is to be believed, parents are beginning to realize that bridge improves memory and sharpens the mind and unlike chess, “(it) is a team game where you have to work with a partner and are up against two opponents... It wasn’t for no reason that General Eisenhower, when he became president, favoured bridge players for his planning department.” Mint couldn’t independently verify if he actually did so.
The Internet too has helped to generate interest in the sport among youngsters. According to Samant, many young people, who wouldn’t turn up at tournaments or register themselves with the Bridge Federation, play online. “You will see thousands of youngsters playing on Bridgebaseonline.com, but (they) would never come to a tournament or be part of a club,” says Samant.
What is also heartening is the financial support that the sport is receiving from companies such as HCL Technologies, Dhampur Sugar Mills, Tolani Shipping and Shree Cements and even the railways. Because it’s hardly a spectator sport, funding comes from companies that have enthusiasts holding key positions, says Ray, citing the examples of Kiran Nadar, wife of HCL founder Shiv Nadar and the Dhampur Sugar managing director Ashok Goel. Goel took part in the tournament in Kolkata.