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Ace in the bridge pack

- Calcuttan leads Team India
Hemant Jalan (right) with his bridge partner Ashish Malhotra. (Anindya Shankar Ray)

Bengal has found its next “Team India” captain… after Sourav Ganguly.

Hemant Jalan, a 58-year-old Calcuttan living in Ballygunge, has been chosen to lead from the front at the 4th Commonwealth Nations Bridge Championship in Glasgow from September 8 to 14. He’s been on the deck before — just that this time there is nothing unofficial about it!

Back in 2010, Jalan had led his team to victory at the Commonwealth Nations Bridge Championship in Delhi but didn’t get the gold medal. “Being the host country, you are allowed to put up one official team. The other teams are classified as invitees. We were one of the invited teams in 2010,” recalls Hemant, a businessman who started playing bridge around 1995.

Hemant’s team had defeated the official Indian squad in the semi-finals and Scotland in the final, only to be denied their full reward because of a quirk in the rules.

“If there are two teams qualifying from the same country, they have to play each other in the semi-finals. We beat Scotland in the final, but according the rules, unless you are the official team you don’t get gold. We only received the cash prize. We didn’t get the medal but we had the bragging rights,” says Hemant, who had been introduced to the game by his parents.

Hemant and his parents used to play cutthroat bridge, a game involving three players, and the regular practice and guidance soon made him a player to reckon with at home and abroad.

Hemant’s team now includes three other Calcuttans — Ashish Malhotra, who has been playing bridge since he was in Class XII, Kaustabh Nandi, who works for IBM, and Sandip Datta, a railway official.

The other players in the squad are Delhi-based Sandeep Thakral, who runs a software business, and Kaustubh Bendre, a businessman from Pune.

For Hemant, bridge is as much a legacy as a game he is good at. “Bengalis are supposed to be good in bridge as a rule. We are not Bengalis but we are like Bengalis!” he quips.

Hemant and his partner Ashish have known each other for 25 years. He generously acknowledges Ashish, who is in his 40s, as the “boss” in their partnership. “I am the cooler one but he is the better player,” Hemant says of his partner.

Besides sharing a rapport that translates into teamwork on the table, it helps that both look up to Pakistan’s Zia Mahmood as their favourite bridge player.

Since understanding between bridge partners holds the key to success, Hemant and Ashish had been looking for teammates who could play with them regularly. The other four members of the Indian team — the official one — came on board two-and-a-half years ago. “We won the Indore Masters in 2014 (for the Kalani Trophy, a part of The Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar National Bridge Championship). Then we won the Bhartia (All India Mohan Lal Bhartia Bridge Tournament, held in Delhi) in 2013. We have also qualified for every tournament. That’s 25 tournaments in two-and-half-years. There is no team as consistent as ours,” smiles Hemant.

After Glasgow, the team’s bridge itinerary includes the open World Championship in China. Hemant and his partners also hope to qualify for the Bermuda Bowl next year.

While representing India is the pinnacle of his ambitions, Hemant nurses a desire to play bridge with Hollywood veteran Omar Sharif, a master of contract bridge.

You might think bridge only requires brains but Hemant insists that physical fitness is just as important. “The best players in the world go and have a swim or play a game of squash in between games,” says the 58-year-old, who also plays golf and loves cooking Italian and Mexican cuisine.

While Hemant remains passionate as ever about the game, bridge was never a career option for him. “Unfortunately, in India, you cannot make a living out of bridge. It’s just a pastime. My family says that I should either work or retire and play bridge!”

He also takes pains to explain that bridge isn’t gambling. “It is a game with no luck involved. The same deals are computerised in a tournament. And it keeps your mind alert. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett play bridge regularly. If you know the basics, it is not difficult to pick up bridge,” says Hemant.

So, is it an old man’s game? “Not at all,” chorus Hemant and Ashish. “If you see the Chinese and Israeli teams, the average age is 25-35!”

What message do you have for captain Hemant and his team? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com