Coach Priya Ranjan Sinha teaching government school students. Photo Abhishek BA-Mint

Unlike his friends, L. Manikantha, 17, did not wait to celebrate his success in the board exams. Right after his pre-university course results were announced at Government College, Varthur, he made his way to the Koramangala Indoor Stadium in Bengaluru, about 20km away. In the multidisciplinary stadium, 10 other teenagers, aged 16-18, had gathered to practise bridge. At stake is a shot at representing India in the World Youth Open Bridge Championships in Lyon, France, this August. To make the eight-member Indian contingent, they have to clear the selection trials in Nashik (22-24 June). Since the teams play in pairs, the players will be pitted against each other and against traditionally strong squads from Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal.

Since 2013, 14 students from three government schools in Whitefield, Bengaluru, have been learning the nuances of the card game that has been popular among the defence services and business-people. Most of them had never played a card game before Bindiya “Mini” Naidoo and her team from the Karnataka State Bridge Association started teaching them the game. Now, they play the game online every night for at least 2 hours and participate in outstation tournaments, camps and workshops.

Naidoo, 58, a charcoal artist by day, will represent India in the women’s category at Lyon. “It’s important to catch them young if you want to develop competitive players,” says Naidoo, who joined the board of the Karnataka State Bridge Association with the explicit goal of expanding training initiatives. “We wanted to bring bridge to schools, much like chess, which is recognized everywhere.”

The training has paid dividends. The teenagers won the trophy in the All-India Junior and Sub Junior Bridge Championships in the Under-21 category in 2016, an achievement dampened only by low participation. Two of the players were placed second in the Malathi Sastry Open Bridge Tournament held in Bengaluru earlier this year, beating several adult pairs. But representing India on the global stage could well be the crowning glory for them.

A Dwindling Legacy of the Raj

Contract bridge, commonly called bridge, is played with a regular deck of cards by four players (in teams of two) and involves concentration, strategy, memory and coordination with one’s partner. The recreational version of the game is called rubber bridge, while tournament-level bridge, also called duplicate bridge, minimizes the element of luck by dealing the same set of cards to opposing teams.

The origins of bridge in India can be traced to the Raj, when British civil servants would play the game to pass the time. It was largely recreational and remained so until the late 1970s, when business houses like the Dalmiyas, Bhartias and Modis saw the business potential in sponsoring the sport. It helped that they were familiar with the game.

In 1975, the Bridge Federation of India (BFI), the apex body for the sport in India, was formed. It has had an uphill task, given that bridge has to compete with video games and social media in the search for instant gratification in a teenager’s mind.

The BFI has about 12,000 registered members—documentation has only begun recently, says Prasad Keni, the federation’s president. But registered members don’t always play regularly, many recreational players are registered as well. District bridge associations, set up in prodigious numbers after the BFI was formed, are fading slowly. The average age of tournament players has increased, indicating that there aren’t too many new players.

The Indian Institutes of Technology used to be fertile ground for new recruits for bridge, says Keni, but that no longer holds true. “We are really finding it difficult to get new players,” he says.

Then there is the problem of bridge being confused with more commonplace games such as rummy—and sometimes with gambling.

Challenges of teaching a mind sport

In fact, when Naidoo and her team conducted introductory sessions at upmarket schools, many parents opposed the introduction of a card game. A friend at the Rotary Club of Indiranagar in Bengaluru then put Naidoo in touch with the three government schools in Whitefield, where they started off coaching nearly 40 class VII students.

One of the players, M. Priya, 18, says that in the beginning she was not interested in the game. Her interest was piqued when she ended up in the team that won the first-ever inter-school bridge competition held locally in 2015. “My teacher had told us that only the boys would win,” she laughs.

After the tournament, 15 students were identified as likely tournament-level players. By this time, the coaching team had also discovered that weekly classes did not significantly advance the learning process. “It was frustrating…. I said I wanted them for a full day at least in captivity so I could teach them,” says senior coach Priya Ranjan Sinha, 48.

A three-day camp followed; it helped students move from the beginner to the intermediate stage. Since then, there have been focused camps and training sessions and the team has stopped the weekly coaching sessions at schools.

Keni says the challenges of teaching the game must be acknowledged for any initiative to succeed. “One inherent problem with bridge is that it takes a long time to learn the game,” he says. Even the fastest module needs nearly 50 hours to grasp.

Youth-friendly measures seem to guarantee regular practice sessions. Most of the youngsters have smartphones with a free app, Bridge Base Online, connecting them to each other and to international players.

Keni says the players need incentives, whether it’s exposure, or the possibility of a job, or the excitement of playing the game itself. For the Bengaluru players, trips to Goa, Ludhiana, Chennai, Madurai and Nashik for tournaments and training have been a great learning experience.

The grand plan of the Bengaluru initiative is to develop a national video curriculum that bridge players across the country can use to ease students into the game. There are encouraging signs of support—the sport was upgraded to the “Priority” list of sports by the Union sports ministry in 2013. The 42nd World Bridge Team Championships 2015 were held in Chennai, but did not succeed in significantly popularizing the sport.

The BFI’s dream, Keni says, is to have the game introduced in the National Council of Educational Research and Training curriculum as a mind sport, on a par with chess, in middle school.

For now, however, the students are hard at practice, their eyes focused on the cards in their hands. The hall is quiet, there is hardly a change in expression to suggest who is winning. The players confer quietly as the coaches point out areas of improvement.

They are hopeful of making the cut this year, even as college looms. “We have to get into the team this year, at least some of us. I hope somehow we are also able to get related jobs,” says Manikantha.

Keni says developing a support ecosystem, like the one for chess, is the only way to build the sport. “That means coaching jobs, paying tournaments, and, of course, medals,” he says. “This is just the first step.”