'Bridge'-ing generations: From old-gen pastime to a recognised sport

Recognised by the International Olympic Committee, Bridge is a game appreciating intellectual acumen, strategic thinking, and precision in execution

Updated: Sep 22, 2023 12:33:45 PM UTC
Mrs Nadar playing shots.

As an avid bridge player, I have been interested in the sport since I was a young girl. I used to play with my parents and brother; we used to play family bridge. Bridge is often thought to be synonymous with retirees and senior citizens, but this seems to be changing. It is heartening to see the rekindling of interest worldwide. Bridge is being recognised as a game of strategy that involves mental stimulation and the ability to tackle challenges with intelligence. It is being encouraged for all ages, considering the agility and cognition powers it requires. The game's journey has seen it go from being a pastime for the older generation to a recognised sport played by millennials and Gen Z.

The Change in Perception

Bridge is not an easy game and takes years to master. This is one of the reasons it is usually associated with comparatively older people, who spend hours engaged in the game. However, people are becoming more cognizant that games such as Bridge can be extremely beneficial in honing mental acuity and thinking abilities. Some studies have already come out that indicate it can help fight illnesses such as Alzheimer's and dementia. It greatly strengthens the mind. My mother was a very active bridge player; she played until the week before she passed away at 86. She was alert and had great mental clarity, something I believe is directly related to her active participation in the game.

Bridge is a 'mind sport' alongside the likes of chess. You have to have the strongest capacity to make the least number of errors in your game. It requires intellectual acumen, strategic thinking, and precision in execution. Therefore, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognised the Bridge as a sport, there was a change in perception and popularity. Now, the World Bridge Federation is recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and, like other sports, adheres to Anti-Doping Rules as approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

The game has always been associated with some great minds, from Warren Buffet to Bill Gates, Martina Navratilova, Churchill, Issac Mizrahi, Omar Sharif, Radiohead, and many more. Even Snoopy, the beagle in the Peanuts comic strip, has been known to play the game.

Bridge in India

Bridge allows players to exercise their minds, hone their decision-making abilities, and strategise effectively. Shiv (Nadar) and I played a lot recreationally after we got married. I eventually got into competitive bridge when I took a break from NIIT to look after Roshni. I had some extra time and started going to the Gymkhana club and meeting other bridge players. They felt I had a lot of potential and encouraged me to play in the National Tournament. So I went straight to Nationals and then straight to the World Championship. This was in 1987 when we came 12th out of 500 pairs. I am also the largest recipient of Nationals, having won 12 tournaments.

India's Bridge community has around 4,000 individuals playing competitively. The Bridge Federation of India (BFI), under the World Bridge Federation (WBF) and the IOC, actively encourages youth interest in the game. Initiatives by local organisations have further contributed to Bridge's popularity, intending to nurture young talent. Within our team, we have recently included two youngsters who are under 30. They were part of the under-31 team, which won the Bronze medal at the World Youth Bridge tournament. They have been playing for a long time and are incredibly focused. Including young perspectives in our team is refreshing and a testament to the game's growing popularity among the younger generation.

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It makes sense that the Bridge Federation of India actively engages with individuals to advocate for including Bridge as a recognised mind sport in inter-university games and schools. The skill required for players to decode their partner's signals, interpret their opponents' moves, and adapt their tactics is a true test of cognitive prowess. Others think along these lines as well. Pranab Bardhan, an Indian Bridge veteran who won in the 2018 Asian Games, feels that Bridge is a game rooted in logic, a mind game akin to chess but even more demanding.

Bridge as a Mind-Sport

The recognition by the IOC was followed by the inclusion of Bridge in prestigious events such as the Asian Games. This move, many believe, is key in popularising Bridge among the younger generation in India and across the globe. On a recent trip to India, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates met and interacted with Anshul Bhatt, a 13-year-old Bridge player who scripted history last year by becoming the youngest winner at the World Youth Bridge Championship in Italy.

Young Anshul made a significant impression on Mr Gates, who posted a video of their meeting and said, "It was fun meeting Anshul and picking his brain about our favorite pastime. Anshul, if you're ever looking for a new Bridge partner, I'm your guy."

The University of Stirling conducted a research project, "Bridge: A Mind Sport for All," exploring the benefits and skills gained from playing Bridge. The study aimed to develop the sociology of mind sports as an academic field. The project received support from the Bridge community to investigate interactions within the mind-sport, well-being, transferable life skills, mental health, and social connections. Like any sport, it requires consistent practice. When I train for a tournament, we play at least two hours a day in practice sessions. Sometimes, we play online against players from other teams and even practice amongst ourselves. We use these training sessions to discuss our glitches and make room for improvement. This also allows us to learn from our own and opponents' mistakes.

Bridge requires such a high level of intellect that during the Cold War, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) believed the Russians were sending secret messages through Bridge signals. To crack those codes, the CIA hired Bridge experts!

Bridge in the Global Arena

While the International Mind Sports Association is trying to elevate Bridge to the status of a medal event in the Olympics, IOC's recognition has worked as a stepping-stone to its growing popularity and resurgence worldwide. Countries like China have embraced Bridge wholeheartedly, with thousands of young players actively participating. Schools in China even employ Bridge teachers to teach mathematics, recognising the cognitive benefits it offers to young minds.

In England, thousands play "kitchen Bridge" (leisurely Bridge at home), with more than an estimated 30,000 playing competitions in clubs. A small island nation like New Zealand has about 14,000 players and more than 110 Bridge clubs. The American Contract Bridge League, known as the largest Bridge organisation globally, holds a membership of over 165,000 individuals. The estimated count of Bridge players worldwide is an impressive 220 million.

The Impact on Youth

Bridge enthusiasts firmly believe that the game enhances critical thinking skills, fosters healthy competition, and develops team spirit among youngsters. Moreover, studies have shown that playing Bridge improves working memory and reasoning, keeping the brain healthy and dementia at bay.

Bridge Online

In 2020, the closure of numerous Bridge clubs worldwide triggered by lockdown prompted players to adopt online play as an alternative. According to a survey by the Manchester Contract Bridge Association, 76 percent of players who had never attempted online Bridge before shifted to the platform during the lockdown.

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The most popular online Bridge organisation, Bridge Base Online (BBO), which I use often, recorded an astounding 50,000 player sessions during the pandemic. Eighty odd members of India's own Jalandhar Bridge Association (JBA) are also moving onto the online platform to play real-time Bridge. The best thing about playing online is it removes geographical boundaries and brings players from all corners of the world closer, making it more accessible and offering an easy way to explore this timeless mind sport and its benefits for players. While there are a lot of differences between playing online and in person, it's essential to have exposure to both. Online is a great forum to come together and practice, especially when your team is from different parts of the country. It is crucial to have practice sessions with your partner, even for me, and I have been with my bridge partner for more than 27 years!

Intergenerational Appeal

Bridge has undergone a significant transformation from a humble card game to its current recognition as a sport. The resurgence of the game bears testimony to its enduring intergenerational appeal. Its inclusion in international events shows the rise in popularity of Bridge as a competitive sport. It stands out as a unique competitive activity that transcends generations, enabling people of all ages to participate and succeed, contrary to the misconception that it exclusively belongs to the elderly. The game is a continuous journey of discovery, learning, and play without ever truly mastering it.

The writer is director of HCL Corporation and an internationally acclaimed Bridge player, gold medalist at the 5th Commonwealth Games and 2018 Asian Games Bridge Medalist.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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