'Is this useful for going to casinos?' The Singapore team bidding for success at the Asian Games

'Is this useful for going to casinos?' The Singapore team bidding for success at the Asian Games

Team SG will include a squad of card players at the Asian Games in August.

Contract Bridge Training Session
Members of Singapore's contract bridge Asian Games team in action. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

SINGAPORE: Loo Choon Chou, a member of the Singapore team for the upcoming Asian Games, trains hard for competitions.

However, his preparations don't include the type of activities one normally associates with major sporting events, like hitting the gym or careful diet planning.

Instead, the 36-year-old spends hours analysing future opponents and pores over a playbook, familiarising himself with possible scenarios he might encounter at the games, which are being held in Indonesia next month.

As D-Day looms, Mr Loo also often checks into a hotel with the rest of his team, where they fall into a pre-competition routine. Their schedule revolves around group walks and lots and lots of practice.

Ms Seet Choon Cheng playing bridge
A contract bridge player arranges playing cards. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

This unusual training regime is because Mr Loo's event requires mental rather than physical exertion: Contract Bridge.

He and his teammates are working hard to ensure that when match day comes around and Mr Loo dons his jersey, he is ready for battle - one he will fight with a hand of 13 cards.

A full-time player with a club based out of China's Zhejiang province, Mr Loo is also one of the 266 competitors representing Singapore at the Asian Games in Indonesia next month - 24 of which are part of the bridge squad.

"Most people don't even know what bridge is," he told Channel NewsAsia. "The funniest question is when some ask: 'Is this useful for going to casinos? Can you make a lot of money there (with these skills)?' Sadly, the answer is no." 

Contract bridge, or bridge as it is commonly known, is a game played using a 52-card deck by four players in two competing partnerships.  

The game begins with the bidding phase, where each player attempts to relay information about their hand to their respective partners, by bidding to win the 'contract'. 

A bid consists of a number and a suit - spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs, or no trump. The pair that win the bidding auction will attempt to earn the required number of 'tricks' (a sets of four cards) to meet the contract.  

Points are then scored based on the number of tricks won with respect to opponents. Between 40 to 60 rounds, or 'boards', are usually played per day in a tournament.

Contract Bridge bidding box
A contract bridge bidding box. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

"If I were to sum up bridge, it would be decision-making under conditions of uncertainty," said Mr Kenneth Chan, secretary of Singapore Contract Bridge Association (SCBA).  "For every board, you have to take into account the risks - like what are the potential things you can lose and the potential gains that you can get. So it's all about risk analysis."

There are close to 1,000 active contract bridge players in Singapore, estimates Mr Chan, who noted that many pick it up from clubs at the junior college or university level. 

This year marks the first time contract bridge will be included at the Asian Games. The sport featured at the 2011 SEA Games, also in Indonesia, where Singapore finished with one gold medal, five silvers and three bronzes.

Mdm Seet Choon Cheng clinched gold in the women's pairs event in Palembang, and seven years later, will once again be representing Singapore.

Singapore contract bridge husband wife duo pose for a photo
Mr Chua Gang (left) and Mdm Seet Choon Cheng (right) will be representing Singapore at next month's Asian Games. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

"It was a really good feeling then because the Indonesians were thinking that they would get the gold. They didn't and so they were a little disappointed," recalled Mdm Seet, who will be competing in the Super Mixed event with her husband Mr Chua Gang.

Sitting at a table playing cards may seem straightforward, but Mdm Seet says that hours of contract bridge can take a toll on players.

"It's like after taking an 'A' level exam. It can be so tiring that you blank out while playing," she said. "(When I play bridge) I always tell my friends and colleagues that I am going for the other type of stress."

Mr Loo, who participates in close to ten professional tournaments a year agrees. His competitions can last up to ten days, with eight hours played per day, he said.

"There's a lot of endurance and stamina required and at the end of the day it's about who makes the least mistakes. It's not about how brilliant or good you are," he explained.

Contract Bridge medal collection
A collection of Mr Loo Choon Chou's medals. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

The former Hwa Chong Institution Mathematics teacher also makes it a point to keep fit as part of his regular routine, and exercises thrice a week.

"I find that it does help in the ability to concentrate," he added.


Having a good contract bridge partner is also essential to a team's success, say members of the Singapore squad.

"Bridge is not just an intellectual game, there is also a social aspect to it. You have to learn how to communicate with your partner and learn how he thinks, so that in a typical scenario, you can read each other well and that gives you an edge," said Mr Loo, whose full-time bridge partner is Mr Poon Hua. 

The pair quit their jobs to turn pro as a team in 2014.

"A good partner is very important. One of the older players told me that a good partner is like a good marriage. You have to be on the same wavelength to be able to communicate well through the bidding," added Mr Chan, an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore.

Playing contract bridge online
Ms Tan Sock Ngin plays a game of contract bridge online while her daughters wait. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

Another couple who will represent Singapore at the Asian Games are Mr Fong Kien Hoong and Mdm Tan Sock Hgin.

The pair met at the bridge club in university and have been married for 14 years.

"If your spouse too plays bridge, they will understand the demands of the game, why I have to spend so much time reading notes, writing notes and playing," said Mr Fong, who has forked out more than S$20,000 participating in bridge competitions overseas. 

Ultimately, the group aim to raise the profile of the sport in Singapore with a solid showing at the Asian Games. 

Bridge players tallying the scores
Participants at the contract bridge tournament tally the total scores. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

The general consensus is that they could be among the medals along with traditional powerhouses Indonesia, China and Japan.

"The men's team I think we have a pretty good chance," noted Mr Fong. 

"I think a bronze is a pretty high probability, and we are trying for a silver and if we are in luck, we might even get a gold."

On Aug 27, 2018, Singapore's contract bridge men's team won the gold medal in the event's debut at the Asian Games. ​​​​​​​Read the full story here.

Get the widest coverage of the 18th Asian Games (Aug 18 – Sep 2) from Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia on Mediacorp. Go to toggle.sg/AsianGames2018 for details.

Source: CNA/mt