Sitting in a hotel room in Milan, Italy, Anshul Bhatt was alerted to his mobile phone ringing. It was an unknown number, but the voice was entirely familiar. It was a phone call from Sachin Tendulkar.
This was a few days before Bhatt, a 13-year-old from Mumbai, was to compete at the U16 World Youth Bridge Championships in Salsomaggiore in the northern Italian province of Parma.
“I’ve never met him before,” Bhatt told Scroll.in.
“Over a call he explained to me how to manage pressure and expectations, things like that. He talked about how to manage the nerves and the expectations – both internal and external.”
And then Tendulkar asked the youngster how he was feeling. A mixture of nerves and excitement was the reply.
“He said it was the perfect place to be. He said if you’re not nervous, then you’re not worried about the result. A little nervousness is good, it makes you care about the result,” Bhatt added.
In other words, a little nervousness means you want to win. And Bhatt certainly did. In a few days’ time, on August 10, he won the gold in the pairs event. Three days later, he captained a four-player team to the title and a day later, won a third gold medal for overall performance.
In between the pairs and team events he got another call from the cricketing legend.
“He called to tell me to carry the confidence from this event into the next one, but to remember that it’s a new event,” Bhatt recalled.
Five years ago, when he first competed at the 2017 U16 Worlds in Lyon, France – as an eight-year-old – he won the award for emerging player. He has built momentum since then and now captured the biggest crown in bridge in his age group. But he needed to put in the hard yards a month prior to the trip to Italy, especially after his regular partner was forced to withdraw.
“I was to play with a Greek partner, but a month before the tournament he had his school exams and didn’t do well. So, his parents didn’t let him come,” he said.
Then came a scramble to find a partner in a strategic card game that relies on teamwork. After a short search, he found 15-year-old Canadian Darwin Li. But to forge a chemistry, and with the vast time difference between the two countries, Bhatt’s daily schedule had to be altered.
He would train with Li from 6 pm to 1 am, sleep, wake up by 10 and an hour later would start training with his coach Keyzad Anklesaria, a 2016 World Bridge Games bronze medallist. It’s a schedule he followed diligently for a month.
“I really didn’t have to push him to train, he was already determined and self-motivated enough to know what he needed to do to prepare,” said Anshul’s father Mehul Bhatt to this publication.
It was Mehul, who runs his own finance company, who introduced the game to Bhatt.
As a four-year-old, Bhatt said, he’d play a card game – Whist – with his grandparents but “would get annoyed when they forgot the numbers.”
Recognising his son’s skill, Mehul decided to introduce him to bridge and got him a coach.
“I was around six years old and so small that I needed to sit on top of the table because I wouldn’t be eye level if I was on a chair,” Bhatt said.
He has grown since then, but sitting has still been a major physical strain, as players have to sit for long periods of time – Mehul estimated that Bhatt was on the chair for around nine hours a day during the event in Italy.
“There wasn’t really much I could do anyway from the sidelines,” he said. “So I stepped out to do my own work on my laptop. Making a few calls and sending emails to make sure everything with work is in order.”
Bhatt, on a lighter note, added an entirely different version of what his father was doing while the matches were on.
“He and another player’s father went on a trip to Parma and had some nice meals. And he didn’t take me!” he complained. “He brought me back some cheese, but that was more for the entire family. Not really me.”
He does credit his father for making the off-table environment as comfortable as possible, though.
“My dad had desiccated food arranged, like chole and rajma, so I had home food every day. That just refreshed me,” he added.
It kept him relaxed and focused enough to win the gold in the pairs, and then captain Team Blitz to the title. He was the youngest in the team that included Li and a 14 and 15-year-old duo from Estonia.
These are medals that, in hindsight, satisfy a promise he made a few years ago.
Sitting in the Matunga Gymkhana, as a 10-year-old in 2019, Bhatt was asked what he liked about bridge. Immediately, Mehul started to explain how his son first took up the sport. But the youngster calmly looked at his father and raised his hand. It was a silent message to Bhatt senior that said, “don’t worry dad, I got this.”
Mehul laughed as he remembered the incident.
As it turned out, Bhatt really did have everything under control.