'Bridge is antithesis of gambling': Asian Games silver medallist Jaggy Shivdasani

At 65, Shivdasani was India's oldest medallist at Hangzhou

Jaggy Shivdasani The Indian Bridge team in China | Twitter

The Indian men's Bridge team of Sandeep Thakral, Jaggy Shivdasani, Raju Tolani and Ajay Prabhakar Khare clinched the silver in the Hangzhou Asian Games as India breached the 100-medal mark in the quadrennial event. They beat the mighty Chinese in the semifinal, a major upset, before going down in the final against Hong Kong.

At 65, Shivdasani was India's oldest medallist at Hangzhou. The Bridge veteran, in an exclusive interaction with THE WEEK from Singapore, shared his excitement in having contributed to India's medal rush. He also debunked the myths around the little-known card game that is often ridiculed as a game of luck, and gambling. Why was the Indian Bridge team asked to stay away from the media during the event? How can India attract its younger generation to Bridge? What lies ahead for his comrades? Excerpts:

On beating a superior China to qualify for the final...

Shivdasani: Getting to the qualifying stage and guaranteeing a bronze medal was itself an achievement. But we wanted to do better. It was a hard-fought match [against China]. We managed to eke out a close victory, which was very satisfying.

It was very special because China is the regional Bridge powerhouse. They have a very regimented programme in terms of government support, training, coaching, practice etc . And it works. When you have a system like that in place, it's hard to beat them.

We have talented players but most of us are not professionals. We have regular daytime jobs or alternate careers. Yes, we have been working hard for the last three or four months, but such an effort [taken by China] that involves years and years can't be matched in a few months. Nevertheless, we managed to beat them. That was the highlight.

On coming short in the final against Hong Kong China...

When you are playing a gruelling event for 10 days, your stamina and other factors matter. It's not just physical stamina, but you are using so much mental energy. If your mind tires, the focus and concentration can lapse which can cause an error or errors and eventually cost you the game. As it turned out in the final, it wasn't an error from us but the fact that Hong Kong played extremely well.

We were hoping to do even better in the finals and win the gold medal. But one can't be too disappointed because we were not the pre-tournament favourites and it was always going to be hard.

We are all thrilled to have contributed towards India's hundred. A silver medal is not something to be disappointed about. It's no mean feat. 

About being an ace sportsman aged over 60...

I was the youngest national champion at 18 - 47 years ago. And now I am this edition's oldest medallist at 65. But I can assure that I am still the fittest member of the team!

Some people think I'm probably at my best now. But I don't think I am. My prime was from my mid-30s to mid-50s. That is perhaps the peak age for Bridge. It's not easy to be error-free for so many days, especially at my age. 

On the need to draw youngsters to the game...

It's very important. The average age was under 40 in the Hong Kong team while ours was closer to 60. 

I hope with this performance and the kind of media publicity, government recognition, and cash awards we are getting now for the first time, youngsters will get attracted to Bridge.  

Thoughts on how India can make Bridge more popular among the youth...

We have some youngsters coming in but it is nothing compared to parts of Europe like France, England, Scandinavia Netherlands and of course the US. These countries have included Bridge in schools and colleges and they have active programmes. We can attract more youngsters with a plan that helps them to make a financially sustainable career out of it. I hope that this is the point where things begin to change. India is a very smart country. 

And of course, nothing is going to happen without government support. 

On media reports of the Indian Bridge team opting for a 'social media detox' during the Games...

It wasn't social media as a whole. It was these private WhatsApp groups for Bridge. It is true we were directed by our coach and federation to stay away from them because people are quick to criticise and not as forthcoming to appreciate. This can have a psychological impact on players. Negative feedback can have a dampening effect on your psyche when you are in the middle of an important event and affect your performance. We were asked to sign an agreement by the federation not to speak to the press until the event was over.

Response to detractors who say Bridge isn't fit to be part of Asian Games... 

Criticism comes from ignorance. They associate Bridge with gambling since it is a card game. Bridge is actually the antithesis of gambling.  It is not just about luck. There is as much luck in a long Bridge match as there is in tennis or golf or any such game. Would you say they are gambling and luck games as well? Sometimes you get a bad ruling. 

There are some imponderables in Bridge. Say the chessboard is open and in theory, you can calculate every 400,000 possible moves. But the human mind can't do that. Computers can be programmed to beat the world's best chess players. But they can't do the same for Bridge.

Understand that this is a game accepted as an Olympic sport. We are not getting a slot because of the scheduling. I hope it will happen soon.

Jakarta and Hangzhou: A look back...

We got a bronze medal in the mixed event in Jakarta, but we missed out this time. We had two or three more events back then which are no longer part of the Games. 

While Jakarta was fantastic, China was at another level in terms of preparation, work, facilities and the like. Hangzhou was a fabulous city. The people were so warm and the Asian Games Village was stunning. 

Overall experience of being part of Asian Games in China...

And when you travel wearing your Games accreditation badge, people ask for selfies. The border tension was not an issue, and they gave us all complimentary metro and bus passes. I have played all around the world and I can say that the building where our event happened was beyond fantastic. 

The next host of the Asian Games has a very hard example to follow.

On interactions and relationship with fellow Indian athletes in Hangzhou... 

I got asked in Jakarta by many of our fellow Indian sportsmen as to which sport I was a coach of! It was because of my age. Then I had to explain and they were shocked and surprised to know I was an athlete and not an official. 

I met Neeraj Chopra, Anju Bobby George, our 4 X 400 men's relay team, badminton stars, and many others. 

On controversies around Asian Games 2023...

I personally saw none of that. My game was played with fantastic spirit and fairness. Some of the Chinese players that we defeated are friends from the professional circuit. They congratulated us and said we deserved to win. There was no animosity and we did the same to the Hong Kong team after the final.

The road ahead...

Indian Bridge has come a long way. Six weeks before this event, we were in Morocco for the World Championship. We had qualified from Asia and Middle East zone. We narrowly missed out on advancing when we got thrashed by the leaders Norway in the final round. Still, it was a great achievement. But it would have been historic if we had advanced. So, having the stamina to sustain and perform towards the latter stages of an event is something we have to learn.

Feelings on areas that India needs to work on to do better...

Fitness is another thing. If you are physically tired and unfit towards the late days of the event, it gets tough. You may function for the first five or six days but then the fatigue factor tends to come in. So, you have to be physically fit. When the team's average age is under 40, it can be all the difference between winning and coming second. So, that's something we have to learn and work hard towards. 

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