But talk to him a bit more and wisdom beyond his years spills forth when he whips out an orange plastic kit he carries around in his backpack, lays out a deck of cards and offers a crash course on ‘finesse’ — a card play technique in a game of bridge — squashing any chances of a grown-up taking him for an easy mark in this complex, adult game.
This slip of a boy is already a decade-old veteran of the sport since he first sat across his father and grandparents, learnt to balance 13 cards in his tiny four-year-old hand and started beating them at rummy and mendicot. That is before he played his first tournament three years later sitting atop a stack of three chairs so he could be at level with the cards on the table and his opponents at the Indian Gymkhana, mostly 50 and above. “They were like: ‘We’re intimidated! What if we lose to a seven-year-old?’ I didn’t win but I didn’t come last either!” he chuckles.
If that’s not rare enough, the precocious little bridge player created a minor sensation at eight when he became the youngest player in the world to win the Joan Gerard Award — aimed at rewarding aptitude, diligence and international spirit in the junior camps — at the World Youth Bridge Championships in France in 2017. And was all of 13 when he swept three gold medals — pairs, teams (as captain) and overall performance — in the Under-16 category at the 7th World Youth Transnational Bridge Championships in Italy, last August.
“After playing for ten hours, seven days at a stretch, guess what we did when the tournament was finally over?” he quizzed before quickly giving out the answer. “Played some more bridge!”
No wonder, Anshul was one of the “amazing people” billionaire-philanthropist Bill Gates was “thrilled” to meet on his trip to India earlier this month to learn more about the whiz kid and his giftedness in a card game that kids don’t play. “When I go to a bridge tournament, I’m always one of the youngest players,” he said, signing off with an offer. “Anshul, if you’re ever looking for a new bridge partner, I’m your guy!”
It’s an offer that Anshul could mull. “Yes, because finding a consistent partner has been one of my biggest challenges. I started playing at seven but my partners keep growing out of the age cut off for the Under-16 category,” says the student of Dhirubhai Ambani International School who started a bridge club last year for his schoolmates who now call him “Bill Bhatt”.
“I wanted more kids to start playing, partly to solve my partnership problem and also to dismiss the prejudice of parents who think it’s like gambling. Bridge is like any other competitive sport,” says Anshul whose step up to bridge began after his sixth birthday when his father, Mehul Bhatt saw in his son a natural flair for cards and found him a tutor to help him improve and wean him away from watching too much cartoon. “It’s a game that is social, could improve his mental faculties, and keep him engaged. We both started learning together, actually,” says Bhatt. “But he still hasn’t learnt,” retorts Bhatt Junior. “I was more dedicated because I was ‘vela’ (slang for jobless). I was six,” he laughs.
Meanwhile, Anshul’s father, a finance professional, is doing what he can to keep him grounded and handle the pressure of expectations. “Being on the bridge table long enough now, he’s often construed as a ‘bridge-adult’ which at times creates expectations that Anshul may not be able to match. While his ‘bridge brain’ is advanced, his mind and body is that of a 14-year-old. So, I try to ensure that his activities outside bridge are in line with teenagers his age — fooling around with friends, telling us stories from school or making us listen to a new song that he likes — so that Bridge-fatigue doesn’t set in.”
However, playing bridge with older adults, Anshul says, has taught him how generations can learn from each other. “Many young people I know struggle to connect with older folks in their family. Bridge has helped me overcome that age gap. Sometimes I teach them how to use new tech tools and I get advice based on their experiences.”
One such piece of advice came from Sachin Tendulkar, himself a cricket prodigy, two days before Anshul drew his cards at the world championships last year. “At first I thought it was a friend pranking me. But I recognised the voice and he spoke to me for a solid amount of time about how to cope with nervousness, stay hydrated and have a firm routine before the tournament,” recounts Anshul who went on to clinch three Under-16 golds for India. “After I won, he called again and said: ‘Take the confidence to the next event but remember that tomorrow will be a new day’,” recounts Anshul who carries his learnings from the game outside of the bridge table.
“We play around 50 boards in a day and I’ve learnt not to let one bad outcome affect my next board. Similarly, if I’m taking a maths test and struggling with a vector question, I’m able to skip and go on to the next one, not dwell on what I wasn’t able to solve. Also, it’s taught me to perform well under pressure and I’m able to write better and faster in my school tests,” he says.
While the teenager has spent more than half his life on the rigours of bridge, “There’s also a lot of other stuff that I want to do,” he insists. “I love maths and science, I love cooking… and I also want to keep playing forever.”
For now he has his eyes trained on the national championship in Nashik this summer, “Where I hope to break the record of the youngest ever national champion at 18,” he says, his nimble fingers tightly crossed.