He won the Gold in Bridge Men’s Double with Shibnath De Sarkar, his partner for two decades, at the Asian Games 2018. Our correspondent Ayanendu had a chance to get up, close and personal with the very down to Earth King of Indian Bridge:
Q: Let me congratulate you once again for making us proud, as an Indian, as a Bengali and as a resident of Santoshpur(the locality). To start with, tell us about how your journey started with the Game of Bridge?
My father was a bridge player, and so I was exposed to the game at an early age . I still remember there used to be a meeting over Bridge in our house every weekend, and even on holidays. I was probably 14 or 15 when I first participated in a local Bridge tournament in our locality and surprised all to reach the final, (although I hardly knew anything more than the basics of the game back then). Thus, my love story with the game started. I started participating in other local tournaments. Then my father’s friend Professor Samir Mondal (the then Physics HOD of Jadavpur University) helped me shape my thoughts towards the approach of the game. Then after reading a bit from various books, I started participating on a regular basis. Till now I have won every Indian championship there is to offer in the sport, to go with a few of my international accolades. But surely, my Asian Gold tasted the sweetest.
Q: Since most of us are not too well aware of the game of bridge, how will you describe the Sport to a layman?
Well, this is a mental game of strategy, played with 52 cards of 4 different colours. The main onus is on point calculation and scoring. It’s also based on game reading and understanding. It needs to be started from zero, and it is possible to reach a certain stage (like any other stage) pretty easily. The journey to greatness starts after that.
Q: How did you react when you first heard about the inclusion of Bridge in Asian Games?
We were preparing for an overseas tournament when we heard the news. Our Federation President asked us to stay back for trials. We had to go through 3-4 rounds of trials before getting the nod to be flag bearers of the sport.
Q: Your team mate Kiran Nadar(Mixed Team Bronze Medalist) mentioned in an interview how like Football, Bridge was originally omitted by IOA. How did you fight your way to overturn that decision?
We first learnt of the matter via newspaper. It felt like all our dreams and hard-work just went up in flames. Luckily our Federation officials could convince their IOA counterparts of our prospects and even pledged for medals. I feel proud that we could win the Gold. Also it adds more pleasure that we won the 15th Gold, which marked the highest ever Gold count in Asian Games history for our country. Our success has cleared the way for Bridge, and we will never be facing any questions for our sport by IOA ever again.
Q: There’s still a taboo that is prevalent in India, especially in Bengal, about Bridge (Card Games). Did you feel any of it while growing up from your surroundings?
Luckily my father and elder brothers were all into the Bridge culture, so I was gracefully introduced to the same by them. But then you have to understand that Bridge is not like a typical card game. It is fodder for your brain. There’s a science behind it. There are mathematical calculations as well as strategies. I feel it keeps the brain and in turn your health in sync. But regular practice is compulsory to stay on top of the sport.
Q: How are you enjoying your new found ‘celebrity status’?
I am enjoying it thoroughly. I have won international honours before as well; but due to lack of promotion it was not that widely known. Now with the Asian Games Gold medal, people are recognizing both me and my sport with honour.
Q: How did our honourable Prime Minister promise to help Bridge flourish in India, when you met him earlier this month?
Our Prime Minister congratulated us by saying that you will forever be known as the first gold medalists in Bridge. Even though he and his team has very less understanding of the game, they have promised to help us in any way possible for the betterment of the sport. His words were echoed by our Sports Minister as well.
Q: What are your requests to make the game popular in India?
Well Central Government has given the assurance, and we’re hoping we’ll be getting the same from the State Government as well when we meet in near future. We’ll be requesting for the permission to set up a Bridge Academy to help the game.
Q: Coming back to the game, since Bridge was not telecast live on TV, we had to rely on the official website for updates. After a relatively tough qualifying rounds, you were in the lead from the very first round of the final. How confident were you of Gold from their on?
The final occurred in two days. 75% of it was completed by the first day, and we were leading followed by Hong Kong and China. We knew the competition was tough, but since we were in a huge lead, it was almost improbable for us to be denied a podium finish. We knew we just had to stay calm and play our natural game to take home the glory. Thankfully we could do the same!
Q: Both 16-year old Saurav Chowdhary and a 60-year old you have proven that age is no bar by winning respective gold medals. How was it sharing the games village with the youngsters?
Well, even though my body is 60-years old, I believe my mind is still of a 20-year old(laughs). It was great sharing the village with all. We felt like one big family away from home. We stayed in the 32nd floor. Legendary sprinter PT Usha was our neighbour. I was amazed to see her dedication, as she left no stones unturned to bring the best out of the likes of Duti (Chand), Hima (Das) and Swapna (Barman). She even came to encourage us on the day of our event. We used to converse during our lift journeys and ask each other of our respective sports. Many people mistook me for an official, because of my age. But after the final day a lot of them came to congratulate us.
Q: Many people are grouping Bridge in the same category as Chess. How do you think Bridge can attain the same level of popularity as Chess in India?
To make it popular, we need to start from the school level. In Western countries, they have made it a part of their curriculum in schools. In many states like Karnataka, Maharashtra and Delhi, they have already had school sports in the game. We are also trying the same in Bengal, and we have had trial runs in schools like Garden High and Mahadevi Birla already.
Q: The Indian Bridge team overall was very successful. When your highly acclaimed Mixed Team mates won Bronze, did you guys feel any added pressure?
To be honest we expected gold from our mixed team, and it was sad they narrowly missed out on the same. We were under pressure, especially after the end of the first day of finals when we were leading. We received messages from all across the country demanding the gold. Our event was probably the toughest of all the variants; but performing under pressure is what sportsmen have to do, and that’s exactly what we did.
Q: We have often heard in the past that the Indian officials travel to these multi sport events and do almost nothing to help the athletes. How much has the situation changed after having an Olympic Silver Medalist as the Sports Minister?
I have become a fan of the Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as a human. He was always there for us and the way he encouraged and supported each and every athlete, it’s highly commendable. I am very very happy to have him as our Sports Minister.
Q: Bridge is reportedly going to be included in Paris 2024. How are you planning to prepare yourself to for your lifetime dream to represent India at the greatest stage?
Well I will try my best. We have a lot of budding youngsters coming up to play the game. If my health permits and the Government of India entrusts me with the duty, I am confident of the same. But it will be a tough challenge with all the players, and my form in 6 years time will also play a huge role in it.
Q: Like your father in childhood, who continues to inspire you to keep going with your passion everyday?
My better half (Ruma Bardhan) has been my constant support for me throughout. I took up Bridge professionally almost two decades ago, and she has always encouraged me to pursue my dream. She has tackled managing home along with her profession (School teacher) and even provided for us financially. My daughter, Dr. Pratirupa Badhan (Sarkar), has also been a constant support.
Q: Sunil Chhetri once lamented that Indians only worship the ones who succeed, but don’t pay hid to anyone during their struggle days. What message do you want to convey to Indians?
I believe everyone should be encouraged by peers and family in whichever sport they choose to pursue. With encouragements come confidence and in turn it induces great performances. This will increase the probability of achievements and bring joy for the country.
Q: How do you spend your practice and leisure time?
I spend my most time perfecting my skills. It is almost 7-8 hours a day on an average. Apart from that I devote the most of the rest for my infant grandson and my pet dog Bujan. I also engage in musical activities. Being a die hard East Bengal fan, I stay updated about national and international football, however I haven’t gone to the stadium since Majid Biskar last played in Kolkata in 80s. I am also very fond of fish and grocery shopping (like a typical character from Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s novel). I am also a foodie, and it is tough for me to survive without fish!
Q: Are you currently or planning to mentor someone in Bridge?
I am not currently, but I wish to pass my prized possession to my grandson Agastya Sarkar. I believe Bridge can make people more thoughtful, logical and rational. I want to convey this message to the next generation.
Q: What are your future events lined up?
The National Masters Championship is lined up from 25th October in Delhi. The World Championships will also be looming. I hope to continue playing the game for another 2 decades, provided my body permits.
Q: Wishing you all the best for your future endeavours and thank you for your valuable time. It was a pleasure.
Thank you to you too. Stay healthy and keep supporting Sports in India.