The Overnight Expert


Manoj Kumar Nair (B.Tech/EE/1990) recollects his experiences of first playing Bridge at IITM, and how the game has helped shape his life and career.

court-whist-cardsMy dad had a book called ‘5 weeks to Winning Bridge’ which I had seen lying around at home. Being a voracious reader as a kid, I would read anything at arm’s length. This book, however, proved undecipherable despite my best efforts. No wonder that I had never played card games before in my life. I did not even know the contents of a pack of cards! I had seen my parents play occasionally, but was always shooed away from the table, for cards were “not appropriate for children”. My dad used to get old cards from his club, and my sister and I used to bend them for playing “line ‘em up” in very creative ways, even up a flight of stairs!

Joining IITM, I was fortunate to be in a hostel wing with seniors right from day one. Freshmen were usually given the ground floor. “Why didn’t you return the Jack of diamond?” That kindled my interest in Bridge – to one day find a crowd of seniors gathered around a line of open cards on the narrow ledge of the first floor wing in Narmada, near room numbers 104 through 108 (at that point Narmada still followed the British style of numbering: 0-1-2). Sometimes they would lay the cards down at the edge of the table inside one of the rooms. Now I realise that these ‘seniors’ were not very good at the game, but only pretended they were. During my first year, I attended a formal class on Bridge taken by Prof. A Venkatesh and Prof V Sriramulu from the Mechanical Engineering Department, arranged by the then institute captain Madhu (He is now Professor Madhubalan Vishwanathan at the University of Illinois Management School, winner of Bharat Gaurav award in 2009, and still an active player of the game in US). I saw the notice too late and missed the first class, and walked into the second class, only to find myself in the middle of what to me seemed like gibberish.

Opportunity came again, late during my second year holidays. I stayed on to do a summer course and found a lot of time on my hands. I got around to watching a regular Bridge-playing crowd in the hostel. Occasionally I would be called in to fill up a fourth spot, but that would be accompanied by groans of everyone around as I was clueless. I used to get doubled regularly, since we never played for stakes, and there was no pressure to do well. In a few months of getting exposed to the game, I started understanding bidding. For me, card play was challenging, having never played cards before. So I was marked down as an ‘over-bidder’, and not too reliable a card player.

It all changed – almost overnight. After the holidays, I brought the Bridge book from back home, but it was lying unread in the shelf. Then came a “dire crisis”, for it could only be called that. Our hostel was seriously in the running for Schroeter Trophy that year. All hands were called in to contribute. Bridge was a part of Schroeter in those days (I am told it is not so now). I was already in a few teams including chess, which meant a lot of mugging up. Never in the reckoning for the hostel Bridge team, I was called up to play all of a sudden. The most experienced player in the team could not play. His family member had been taken ill and he would not be available during the two weeks when matches were scheduled.

The hostel captain, a B.Tech Aero senior who had stayed on to do an MS in CS, called me. I still recall the meeting. With a characteristic smirk and a crooked smile, he said, “I never thought I would have to say this, but you need to play for the hostel team.” He was known to be a sarcastic fellow. I nodded my head bravely, but the enormity of the task did not escape me. My feeling of being overwhelmed did not escape him either. “I will try my best to teach you what I have been playing with my partner,” he said. “We will have to do the best we can. We were sure of a silver, but now, I hope we will qualify for the knockouts.”

Such words of encouragement plunged me back into the depths of despair. I decided to put in my best. We had two days before the game and 48 hours for me to understand their system. It turned out to be full of bells and whistles. Despite this, I got my hands around it with a fair amount of confidence. My instructor, despite his scorn, had cut down on his sarcasm realising that he needed me. We finished the system on the first day “putting a night out” with loads of tea from ‘Tarams’. That was to be a brief respite. “If it were not your bidding, I would have asked you to bring your brains back from your room!” I had gone down in a sure contract again. The practice sessions the next day brought out some choicest words from my partner. “Even Mangudi (the portly hostel cook) would know that he should have returned a SPADE!” I had fluffed a defence again.

I crawled back to my room for the night faced with the daunting prospect of playing the hostel match the next evening. The first match would finish before the OAT movie. Looking around in despair, my thoughts went to the book I had brought from home. With shaking hands I extracted it from the shelf. I sat down, determined to get as much I could from the book. I did not know at that time that what I had in my hands was an all time classic in Bridge literature by Alfred Sheinwold, a World War 2 veteran who served as a code and cipher expert. Fortunately for me, his writing was lucid and humorous, and did not need any decoding. The play part of the book gripped me, and I was down for the second all-nighter in a row. I found the basics of card play that I had missed knowing – the simple Holdup play, simple Throw-in, Ruffing finesse, then slowly to fascinating areas that I never knew existed. Trump Coups, Vienna Coups in play, Merrimac Coups and Crocodile Coups in defence – I devoured the names and plays with equal fascination as they whizzed by. The mysterious “Squeeze” spoken of reverently was explained in black and white. Almost all aspects of card play were touched upon. The next thing I knew with a couple more chapters to go, sunlight poured in from the open window. I took an early breakfast of bun omlette from Tarams (as was usual for those “putting a night out”) and slept most of the morning. “You were mugging the whole night AFTER A QUIZ. I have never seen you mug so much FOR A QUIZ!?” said my wing-mates, doubting my sanity when I got up groggily for lunch.

Match-time was 4:00 pm, so I had some time after lunch. My partner came around to find me with my nose inside the Sheinwold. I had just started the chapter on deceptive plays. “You are reading up on Play? I hope that does not wash away whatever you remember of the SYSTEM! Hope you remember the relay breaking sequence.” He thrust the system notes into my face. “Yes, I remember,” I told him weakly, hoping he would go find someone else to bother. Fortunately, the other pair called him from downstairs. I went back to deceptive play removing the system notes from my face. A quarter of an hour later, my team mates called me. Team meeting, they said, come to Tarams. With a huge sigh, I put down Sheinwold, gathered up the system notes and trotted off to Tarams. A strategy session followed. My partner and captain impressed upon me that the other pair (two IITB grads who were doing their MS here and were regular partners from IITB days) would be our anchor pair, while my job was to keep the losses low. We were the top seeds in our group of three hostels. “Little do they know…” said my partner, with a condescending bow in my direction. The team we were playing was a strong one. If we won, even narrowly, that would give us a chance to qualify from our group for the next match was a far easier one.

At this point, dear reader, you have an option of continuing to read on for an edited version of the story where Bridge terms are used to the minimum. You also have an option to go to the link here for the unedited version with a complete 13 point footnote that explains the basics of the game.

The match was to be held at Godav. The open room and closed room were two rooms in the same wing. We elected to play in the closed room, my partner strategically and not surprisingly deciding not to expose me to spectators. With sweating hands, I sat down and shuffled the cards and put them into boards for the commencement of the match. The opponent on my left was a senior from my hometown – he was a JEE topper from Computer Science. My right hand opponent was also a CS senior, and my partner was the computer hobbyist! I was the dunce. We started off. Two boards down the match, my partner closed the auction in 3N where he would be declarer. For some reason, or probably no possible reason (it is all very hazy now), I ignored that and jumped to an ambitious 5C contract to be played from my side.

As soon as my left hand opponent attacked with SPADE KING and dummy’s cards were exposed on the table, I realised my folly in correcting the contract. In the 5C contract, I could afford only two losers, but there were three unavoidable ones. 3NT, where I could afford four losers, appeared to be a better option. With my head reeling, I realised had no winning options; in desperation, I was at a point of clutching at straws,. Then my right hand opponent played a Spade card which set my sleep deprived brain cells racing. “Deceptive play, Week Five, Day 3” came flooding back to me. Here was a small window of opportunity, of playing a deceptive card to the first trick that would give my opponent a losing option. He had the choice of trusting my card and continuing his thrust with another Spade (that play will give me my contract) or sniff out my card with suspicion and shift his line of attack to any other suit (that would sink my contract like the Titanic). While I waited with bated breath for his next move, he thought this over for some time. He looked at my partner; my partner had buried his head in his hands right from the time I corrected the contract to 5C. My opponent then sneaked a probing glance at me, I projected the look of innocence of a baby baa lamb. It was a tough code for my opponent to crack. My partner was a known Bridge expert in the campus, and I did appear mostly harmless. He faltered! He continued the SPADE attack and soon I was chalking up the contract. Despite this, my partner didn’t lose time in berating me for my decision. While he was at it, the opponents however, were gracious enough to acknowledge the play with a quiet “Well played”. I muttered “Thanks” air now rushing back again into my lungs, I realised I had dodged a bullet with my name on it.

A few more boards later, my partner put me in a 3NT. Applying the basics gathered from the code breaking expert, I counted my top tricks, formulated a plan of play and went about it. I executed a Hold up play, cut defence communication (the WWII vet would have been proud of me) and then did a neat throw-in with an air of someone who had done it all in his sleep many times before. Come to think of it, I had not had much of that in two days. It was with great pleasure that I watched my partner’s lower jaw hit the ground! The opponents were suitably awed and soon we exchanged boards for the next half of the match. We bid a thin slam which had my partner at the helm and he soon competently made it. In the excitement, I put him to another slam which promptly went down. We missed a game, and my partner was furious. With our relay system devised by devilish minds, we open all Nine point hands when common mortals even imprudently would only do it with Eleven. We had no business missing any games – we should be bidding some for our opponents’ benefit too!

The match ended soon and we were comparing the scores. I went to wash my face and wipe off the sweat that had built up – for once, I couldn’t blame the balmy Madras evening. When I came back, I walked in to look at the scores. I gulped when I saw lots of big scores in their column. “What is the score?” I asked. 23-7, said everyone, without looking up, “We lost 23-7?” I asked lamely. “No, we won 23-7,” said the captain in irritation. I did not know if he was being sarcastic. I hunkered down to look at the scoresheet. The first score I saw was 5C which I made and found 11 points written against it. I looked down and saw that the 11 points was on the side that had won! Relief flooded in. My partners had merely scored on the wrong side of the sheet. “How did you beat 3N?” I asked my teammates. “I led a Heart,” said one of them. “Wow, well done,” I said realising that a heart was also a possible lead and in this case the only lead to beat 3N contract. We had indeed WON 23-7. The slam we made was not bid, but the one we went down with was bid at the other table where they went down too. The thin game was missed there as well, so we didn’t lose in those two boards. All in all, a resounding victory against a decent team. “I don’t know what happened to him, he was walking in the air like he had just gulped down the Magic Potion,” I heard the captain tell my teammates.

The rest of the tournament went off in a blur. We easily beat the other team to qualify for the knockouts. In the semi-final, we again beat a decent team to set up a final match with the best hostel team, Saras. My play and defence were nearly spotless, and now I was overconfident in bidding. Saras had the institute captain and three very good players. We were no match for them, but ended up with a silver medal, which is what we had set out to achieve. When the player who was away came back, my captain promptly told him “He seemed to have acquired Artificial Intelligence! He played out of his skin,” and characteristically added, “Of course, in the finals, he was back to his true self,” laying the blame for the final loss squarely on me.

I kept in touch with the game despite a demanding IT job in the initial years of my career. Daily newspaper Bridge columns came to the rescue when reading up was not possible. Five minutes spent daily on the Bridge column does wonders to your understanding of the game when done over several years. I have had the fortune to meet all kinds of people as a result of pursuing Bridge. Top businessmen, cabinet ministers, Supreme Court and High Court judges, top IAS officers, military and police personnel, teachers, lawyers, IT professionals, NGO workers, farmers, chess player converts – you name it. I have been to places like Malta, Bahrain and Italy for Bridge-related IT work (We introduced the Italian VUGraph technology to India in 1996 through which computers were used to showcase Bridge to a large spectator audience. In 2003, we did it over Internet for the first time in India using a US-Canadian system. Bridge is one of the few games where even the World Championships can be seen free of cost on the internet). Bridge thus exposed me to a spectrum of people and the colours of life that a regular IT job that I started my career with would never have done. Some 25 odd years have passed, and I still have that worn out copy of Sheinwold with me. It must be from the World War 2 vintage too – just touching a page causes it to crumble. Who knew that just turning the cover of a book would open a window to unseen worlds! It reminds me of a young man who had no idea about cards, but who went on to become the overnight expert.

T5E thanks Saket Kabra, the former institute captain, for arranging for this story.

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