Meet Anshul Bhatt, bridge whiz and world champion at 13 - Hindustan Times

Meet Anshul Bhatt, bridge whiz and world champion at 13

By, Kolkata
Sep 01, 2022 08:43 PM IST

The teen from Mumbai won three gold medals at the World Youth Transnational Championships.

One month before the world championships, Anshul Bhatt had to get a new partner. If you are the kind who can keep the world at bay while discussing a contract bridge hand, you will understand how overwhelming that can feel. If you are not, here’s an explainer from Bhatt: players bid in different ways and the first thing you need to do is find common ground. “Then, of course, you need to be at a similar level and of similar temperament,” he said.

Anshul Bhatt
Anshul Bhatt

And things can still go very wrong. Bhatt spoke of siblings who were partners having a meltdown at the world championship. The boy started yelling during a game at his sister, he said. “When we played them, the girl was crying throughout,” he said.

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Bhatt and his Canadian partner Darwin Li won the pairs gold and their four-member team Blitz (including Estonians Albert Pedmanson and Jasper Vahk) too emerged best. Bhatt also bagged overall gold for best performance across categories: team, pairs and individual. This was in the under-16 age group of the seventh World Youth Transnational Championships in Salsomaggiore Terme, some 112km from Milan. On the day India turned 75, Bhatt was flying home to Mumbai with three gold medals.

Among those calling to congratulate in Italy was Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar had spoken to Bhatt before he had left too. “He told me you should have a routine before and during a tournament. It increases your confidence and helps performance,” said Bhatt.

Before Li, Bhatt had a Greek partner who couldn’t make it to the world championships. Bhatt said he would put in 60-70 hours every week in the month before the event. Apart from practising with a new partner, training is also about reading, doing puzzles and sessions with coach and India’s top player Keyzad Anklesaria. “Wouldn’t have won any of the gold but for him (Anklesaria),” said Bhatt.

Bhatt and Li also did joint sessions with Canada’s Eric Kokish — “probably the best bridge coach in the world,” he said —for 15 days prior to the Worlds.

Hooking up with a new partner and winning is not new to Bhatt. In 2018, he won the under-26 national championship in Mysuru with a partner he hadn’t met before. He was 10 then.

This was Bhatt’s third world championship after Lyon in 2017 and Opatija (Croatia) in 2019. In Lyon, Bhatt, the youngest player in the fray at eight, won the Joan Gerard award “which is given to the emerging player of the competition.” Guess where I was when they were calling out my name, he asked. “In Disneyland, Paris. We hadn’t thought we would get any award so had left earlier.”

For his first two world championships, Bhatt was part of the India team. This time he couldn’t attend the trials because they clashed with tests in school.

Initiated into cards by his grandparents, Bhatt learnt bridge because his father Mehul wanted to learn. “While I have, he still hasn’t,” said Bhatt.

There’s a TED talk featuring Bhatt where he recalls being upset with his partner and complaining to Mehul that he had just played with the world’s second worst player. Bemused, Bhatt Senior asks, who was the worst? “You,” says the son. "Given that my uncle has started playing, I think my father is now the third worst in the world,” Bhatt deadpanned in the Teams call.

There were around 25 Indians at the world championships, he said. So, thanks to the internet, can bridge go the chess way where Indian Grandmasters keep getting younger? Bhatt mentioned software such as Bridge Base and RealBridge and spoke on the importance of recollection: you need to remember the entire bidding sequence which can go up to six bids per player and then remember each card that was played because they are all conveying signals.

But he said: “No, bridge is not mainstream, not for my people of my age or in general. Only around 4000 play competitive bridge in India.” He listed two reasons. “One is the stigma that it is about gambling which is not true at all. The other problem is that a lot of people are intimidated by it; they feel it is too complicated to learn. At the start, the learning curve is quite steep but once you get it, it’s pretty smooth after that.”

Bhatt said he likes playing cricket, football and squash when he is not busy with bridge. And he loves cooking. “I like making a couple of types of sushi roll and maybe a ramen with that. I can make four of five sauces for pasta, Mangalorean Fish curry and butter chicken,” he said.

Time management is key to juggling academics — Bhatt studies at Dhirubhai Ambani International School and said they fully back him — and following passions that apart from cooking includes staying up to date with ‘Star Wars’ and the ‘Marvel Universe’ and reading.

Looking embarrassed, Bhatt said he is terrible at time management. “But my folks help me.” His father, Bhatt said, has been travelling with him to competitions since he started playing them. He was six then. He is 13 now.

Bhatt said he is looking forward to HCL Open in New Delhi in October. He knows bridge can be a career option “because good players do get sponsors” but said he is interested in too many things to want to do that. “But I would like to keep playing till I die.”

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata and has been a sport journalist for over three decades. He writes mainly on football.

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