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The best in bridge

Egypt’s bridge team thrives online to become the champion of Africa, writes Ameera Fouad

Ameera Fouad , Tuesday 22 Jun 2021
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Egypt’s bridge players continued their winning ways, taking the mixed teams in the African Bridge Championship just one week after their enthralling wins in the men’s and women’s categories for three prestigious titles.

The Egyptian men’s national team won the 11th African Bridge Championship after a tough final with South Africa. The team managed to win the round robin only after a battering duel with South Africa, their strongest opponent, in only five days.

Speaking on the tournament, Egyptian player Ahmed Samir said: “Our last session was very intense. Each point really mattered as we played only two sessions in the last day. I am happy we finally won.”

It takes a lot of preparation by the teams and the players to win such titles. It takes critical thinking, playing with certain strategies and tricks while recognising the heart of the hand.

Unlike what people might think of bridge, a card game which entails a certain amount of luck, Samir says luck does not play a part in bridge because every team is given the same cards as the rest of the teams. “It depends on the performance during the game,” added Samir who plays for Alexandria Sporting Club.

Bridge has been greatly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic as the game has transformed dramatically from one of the most famous socialite games into virtual online gaming.

“When someone thinks for just a little bit on our face-to-face table, this makes you think that the opponent is facing a problem or maybe has a bad card. But, now during online gaming, one might be late due to a technical problem or due to a bad Internet connection.”

“It makes you think twice before reading your opponent’s mind,” added Samir who works as chief operations officer in an investment company.

“Egypt won the last” was the rallying cry in last week’s African Bridge Tournament with the Egyptian ladies team winning the title after a difficult battle with Morocco.

“It is not our first time to take the African cup. We took it several times but we can say that the African teams are rising,” said Nadia Al-Arabi, one of the oldest and most recognised bridge players worldwide.  

Al-Arabi remembers that she was introduced to the game abroad upon her marriage to Nabil Al-Arabi, the former secretary-general of the Arab League where the game is very popular in highly diplomatic settings.

“I used to play what could be called social bridge until I returned to Egypt and resumed playing at Heliopolis Club with international players. Then, I started to take the game seriously with some old school friends. That’s how I started loving the game,” Al-Arabi told Al-Ahram Weekly.  

Since then, Al-Arabi has been keen to join international and local competitions.  

Because it is a strenuous mental game, playing bridge consumes a lot of time. For Al-Arabi and many players, it is difficult to play bridge with all the family commitments and responsibilities of life. “If you want to play serious, you must play a lot,” she said.

However, Al-Arabi added: “After many years, I’ve come to realise that bridge plays an important part in my life. It’s good for the mind, good for relaxation. It is very healthy and mentally very beneficial.”

Al-Arabi doesn’t mind playing virtually - video and audio - as she sees it as a good alternative to avoid catching the virus. “It is also practically great as one can play at any time with many professional players across the world without being worried about the hassle of travelling,” she added.

Nowadays, many countries include bridge as part of their school curriculum, including France and Poland where children as young as six can learn the game. In Egypt, people mostly learn bridge in their leisure time either after retiring or shortly after receiving their university degree.

“This is one of the reasons I see why Egypt is not one of the top countries worldwide, although it is the top in Africa,” said Ahmed Zein, an Egyptian bridge champion at Ahly Club and who started playing bridge in 1967 and hasn’t stopped since.

Zein remembers vividly that he was obsessed with an announcement at Ain Shams Club at that time that featured Egyptian Hollywood movie star Omar Al-Sherif who was world renowned for his bridge playing. This is how Zein started playing the card game.

Zein sees no problem in introducing the game to school students especially since it fosters many skills at an early age.  

He also hints at the fact that the media must correct the image of the game which many people still assume is connected with gambling and therefore prohibited. “That’s one of the reasons we have very few clubs in Egypt which certify and have bridge schools for youngsters and adults.”

Although Zein retired internationally after winning several local and international tournaments and playing at the Olympics and World Championships, he still plays locally online.

With respect to club facilities in Egypt, Amr Assaf agrees with Zein that there are very few clubs in Egypt which pay attention to bridge as a mental sport. “In Alexandria, for example, there is only Alexandria Sporting Club, which fosters the game.”

It took Assaf five years to read and study bridge at ASC. He loved the game since he was a student in the Faculty of Engineering.

“I used to read books, study papers and solve equations once I discovered there was a sophisticated system behind it,” added Assaf.

It usually takes many years for players to compete seriously internationally and locally. “You focus more, you learn from your mistakes, and sometimes you change partners until you know the system,” said Assaf, who works as an operations manager at a fertiliser company.

Many players share with Assaf their passion for bridge, not only as a mental sport but also as a special sport that brings many benefits to their lives.

Playing bridge has always been linked to improving long and short-term memory. Many clinical studies including one conducted in the Mayo Clinic in 2017 indicated that with about 750 trillion possible hands, playing bridge helps people avoid mental decline.

Another study at the University of California found strong evidence that bridge stimulates the immune system. It is a mental game that prevents mental and psychological illnesses like Alzheimer’s and a loss of memory. Studies show that almost 95 per cent of people who play bridge do not get Alzheimer’s.

Apparently, playing bridge also teaches people many important traits and skills.

“It taught me how to think in a logical sequence and how to prioritise matters. It also taught me not to leave any impression at the bridge table. You should always put on a poker face so that you would not telegraph to your opponent what’s happening in this play,” said Assaf in an interview with the Weekly

“Being punctual. Once the game starts, you cannot by any means come later, even if it is seconds, or you will miss the whole session.

“It helped me also meet different people from various cities and from various countries. It is an elite game where one meets ministers, diplomats, businessmen, etc,” added Assaf who registered the best score in the last Ramadan Open Bridge Tournament.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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