Olympics Begin In
Begin typing your search above and press return to search.

Asian Games

Away from media glare, Indian bridge team conquers China in their mind palace

Without spectators, live streaming, or even a single applause, six wise men have done something special at the eeriest Asian Games venue by beating powerhouses China. But they have left all social media groups in light of the negative comments bridge players are prone to get.

Away from media glare, Indian bridge team conquers China in their mind palace

Rajeshwar Tewari in action during the semifinal victory against China (AGNS)


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 5 Oct 2023 6:51 PM GMT

Hangzhou: One of the most special victories for India at the ongoing Asian Games has come without any fanfare - or even a whisper. Even back in the country, only around 5000 people are aware that the India men's bridge team have conquered China in their own den at a sport the hosts have dominated since its inception. Currently playing in the gold medal match against Hong Kong, the players are staying away from social media for two more days to not lose their focus on the task at hand.

At the Hangzhou Qi-Yuan (Zhili) Chess Hall on Thursday, the eeriest venue of the Asian Games, which feels more like a library than a sports venue because of the silence, India's men's team coach Joyjit Sensarma tried to suppress his excitement at having crossed the China hurdle in the semifinal.

"Beating China in bridge is a huge achievement for us, even though most people do not understand the significance of this win yet. India was not even considered to be among the pre-tournament favourites in local media a few days ago - it was all China, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei. Even back in India, only around 5000 people - those who play bridge at a competitive level - are aware of the magnamity of what we have achieved," Sensarma told The Bridge.

"We are getting a few stray congratulatory notes, but we had decided unitedly to leave all social media platforms before coming here to avoid distraction. We are not on any WhatsApp groups, no social media websites, but I assume the small bridge community in India is having huge celebrations," said the coach.

India's six wise men - Jaggy Shivadasani (65), Ajay Khare (64), Raju Tolani (63), Rajeshwar Tiwari (60), Sandeep Thakral (50) and Sumit Mukherjee (49) - got on board with the social media diktat in the light of the negative comments that had accompanied the bridge team's debut at the 2018 Asian Games.

Jaggy Shivdasani in action against China (AGNS)

2018 Asiad gold medallist Shibnath Sarkar, who is one of the few waiting with bated breath before the celebrations can start, remembers how public perception of the sport can be a disappointment.

"People will inevitably poke bridge players and annoy them. We have all faced this - we play for the country from 9 am to 9 pm, and then switch on our phones to see negative reactions. Even if 10 people congratulate us and one person ridicules our sport, that one negative comment will stay in our heads," Sarkar said over phone from Kolkata, where he is praying that the men's team can complete the miracle.

To explain China's dominance at bridge, he cited the USA bridge team, which has 1 player of American origin and seven others of Chinese origin. "It is not right that Chinese players can play for other countries, we in India do not have that luxury. Because you cannot own private property in China, many of their best players go abroad and make bridge careers there."

The 50-year-old Sandeep Thakral, one of the youngest members of the Indian bridge contingent, said the China semifinal was a brilliant experience but that the team needs to hold their focus over Thursday and Friday - the two days over which the gold medal match is being played against Hong Kong.

"There were a lot of swings and we were not sure until the end whether we were winning - it was that close. It looked like we were going to win and then in the last three or four rounds it became doubtful. The Chinese team played extremely well, and it was a lovely match...All preparations were done months and years back. There is no technical preparation we can do for Hong Kong. We just need to ensure we focus over the next two days," Thakral said.

Inside China's mind palace

The 'mind sport' centre where bridge is being played along with sports like chess, go and xiangqi, is the most unique among all the Asian Games venues. A 14-storey building in the heart of the city which seems to somehow exist outside reality, there is a pall of silence here. "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree," Coleridge's legendary poem suddenly seems to have materialised in the heart of this modern Chinese city.

Walking to the venue, which should have been a breeze given its central location, is more complicated than it looks. Because no spectators are allowed inside due to the depths of concentration required for the players, the building is skirted all around with metal rails and the first challenge is to find a way inside.

Once inside, the loudest noises are of beeping clocks, shuffling of chairs and of chess pieces being moved. Journalists are asked their country of origin and made to fill out an identity form, not a protocol being followed at any other venue.

The eerie silence is compounded by the unpredictable elevators - one of ten will come down on pressing a switch, but it is challenging to know which one till it has reached. The press tribune is on the tenth floor, two floors below the bridge playing arena, which is shown on a screen like CCTV footage. There is an automatic sensing function that switches off the lights in rooms when there is no one present or when the outdoor light is bright enough.

The mind sports venue

Indian coach Sensarma, while expressing his awe of how perfect the venue is for bridge, agreed that it is a valid question on if making the sport more spectator-friendly should be an agenda.

"How to make bridge more accessible to the masses is a huge concern around the world. The challenge is that bridge is not a simple game if you do not know the intricacies of it, normal people cannot understand it," he said.

"Bridge moves are complicated to explain, the sport is based on partnerships, agreements between the players vary in all partnerships. A pair will make a certain sequence of moves which no commentator can explain, it all depends on styles of the players. Someone might choose to bid on a hand, someone else might not bid on the same hand. Poker and chess, for instance, are much easier to follow and understand. For bridge, you need to invest a lot of time, which is why you do not see young bridge players usually," explained Sensarma.

He, however, said that bridge is the most superior mind sport as even the smartest computers have failed to beat human minds at it.

"Computers can beat even the best chess players, the beauty of our sport is that no computer has been devised yet which can beat us," he said.

Thakral agreed. "It is the most beautiful of the mind sports. It's definitely more fascinating than chess, go, poker or whatever. All those games are exact. Bridge is the only one that is heuristic, where you have to work on incomplete information, just like real life."

Can India win a special gold?

Bridge was introduced as a medal sport in 2018 with six categories, but the events have been pruned down to three this time - men's, women's and mixed teams. Only the men's team managed to make it out of the qualification phase this time into the semifinals. The mixed team narrowly missed out as they finished 5th, the women's team finished 7th.

Saying the ongoing gold medal match against Hong Kong is anybody's game, coach Sensharma said, "In the qualification round, we won once and lost once to both China and Hong Kong. We beat China once by 4 IMPs (international match points) and lost once by 1 IMP. Against Hong Kong, we won once by 18 IMPs and lost once by 24 IMPs."

"All that we have to do now is to not make mistakes or try anything wild, keep it down the middle and wait for mistakes from the opposition. Bridge is a game that is won by making fewer unforced errors," he said.

India have already reached 21 gold medals at the ongoing Asian Games, crossing their best ever medal haul, but if the six wise men manage to cross the Hong Kong hurdle, it will be one of the most special ones.

Next Story