Meet the septuagenarians who played their cards right

At 79-years, Rita Choksi is the oldest of the 524 member Indian contingent at the Asian Games. Jonathan Selvaraj/ESPN

In the week before she travelled to Jakarta, there's nothing particularly unusual about the way Rita Choksi is preparing for her inaugural Asian Games. She's regular at her yoga and breathing exercises, watching over her diet -- fish, broccoli and salads -- and practising her sport for three hours a day. But if there's one thing that makes Choksi stand apart from the average participant at the Asian Games it is the fact that she is just a couple of months shy of turning 80.

At 79 years and 10 months, Choksi is the oldest of the 524-member Indian contingent at the Asian Games. She will be competing in the mixed pair event in the sport bridge competition, which will be making its debut at the Asian Games.

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Indeed, the 24-strong Indian squad in the card game is by far the oldest at the Asian Games. Apart from Choksi, three other septuagenarians -- Vasant Shah (76), Bharati Dey (72) and Subhash Gupta (74) -- qualified for the Indian squad, which has an average age of exactly 60.

While the prospect of senior citizens sharing the Games village with athletes, some of whom are a fraction of their age, might appear to be an unusual contrast, the players themselves don't think much of it.

"I understand why people would find it fascinating but I certainly don't feel that old," says a sprightly Choksi who lives quite appropriately in New Delhi's Asian Games Village. "I've been playing bridge for a really long time, and I've represented India for the last four decades and now that novelty doesn't even register to me any more."

Compatriot Gupta agrees with that sentiment. "We aren't competing in a physical sport," he says. "This is a mind game like chess. Your age shouldn't matter as much as how sharp your mind is."

The fact, however, is that players like Choksi and Gupta are outliers even in bridge. "Even in chess, which is a mind game like bridge, the peak age for a player is in his early thirties," says Rajesh Tolani, who at 58 can be considered one of the younger players in the team. "There are a lot of mathematical tools of probability and permutations that are involved in it, so you would assume high-level bridge players to be younger too."

He offers reasons as to why this isn't so. "Bridge is a game in which the way you work with your partner is very important," says Tolani. "Experience plays a very important role in this. The longer you play, the better you get. Since most bridge players aren't full-time professionals and hold down regular jobs, it's only after they retire that they can devote the time they need."

Choksi too only learned the sport in her thirties. She'd already lived an eventful life until then. Born Rita Bahri in Lahore in 1938, she remembers having to escape the riot-torn city during Partition. "We were smuggled out of the city under a cargo of vegetables in a truck," she recalls. A sportsperson who excelled in badminton and table tennis, she nearly made a career in the movies. "I won a beauty pageant at Sofia College in Bombay and a very famous director wanted me to audition for a movie. I would have gone but my father put his foot down." While that part in the eventual 1960 superhit 'Love in Simla' went to Sadhana in what was her cinematic debut, Choksi settled into married life.

She learned the sport in the 1960s and although her first husband wasn't particularly supportive of her career and denied her the opportunity to travel to her first international tournament in 1970, her second marriage to a player whom she met across a bridge table was a far more supportive one.

Since she first represented India at an Asian competition in New Delhi in 1978, she has travelled constantly for tournaments. Indeed, her compatriots have criss-crossed the globe too.

Mumbai's Vasanti Shah barely survived her first international competition though. Travelling to Frankfurt en route a tournament in Miami in 1986, her flight -- Pan Am 73 -- was hijacked by terrorists during a layover in Karachi. "I was sure I was going to be killed. The passenger seated in front of me was shot and when the hijackers started shooting the passengers, I had to climb over several bodies of passengers who had been shot," recalls Shah, who was injured in the attack that claimed 22 lives and was later depicted in the 2016 Bollywood film 'Neerja'.

That near-death experience, however, did little to dissuade her from her passion for competition. "It took me a few years but I returned to playing international tournaments," says Shah who still travels for tournaments despite being currently restricted to a wheelchair.

While Shah is dealing with the physical limitation of age, her colleague Gupta credits bridge for keeping him active. "It has kept me young," says Gupta, who represented Canada at the world stage before returning to India in the 1980s. "I look at many of my friends who are my age and none of them are as active as I am," says Gupta. "I feel no different than when I was in my fifties."

And while they had all been active players, the news that they would have a chance to participate at the Asian Games took them by surprise. "There had been a proposal many years ago to have it included in the Winter Olympics but that fell through," says Bharati Dey. "So when we learned that we had a chance to take part at the Asian Games, it was incredibly exciting. It's like nothing we have ever done but I'm quite bindaas (cool) about the whole thing."

The chance to win an Asian Games medal has earned them plenty of bragging rights amongst family too. "No one in my family plays sports and I could never get my children interested in bridge but they are very proud of the fact that their mother is going to represent the country at the Asian Games," says Dey. "It's only my eight-year-old grandson who wants to sit next to his naani and learn the game and he has made me promise to give any medal I win to him."

While the Games might appear to be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, not many are expecting family members to accompany them to the tournament. "Bridge isn't a sport you can watch as a spectator," says Gupta. "It's something that's a lot more interesting when you are playing it yourself. And my family has said it's no fun travelling with me for a tournament because the only thing I do after the game is talk to the other players about it."

That's actually the way he prefers it, says Gupta. "I'd like to simply concentrate on the game," he says. "I don't like too many distractions." One of those distractions he mentions is the numerous rules he's having to get used to if he is to compete at the Games. "They made us fill out a form with all our medical conditions and any medicines we might be taking before the Games," grumbles Gupta. "I enjoy the odd beer but I don't think I'm going to be allowed to have any of that during the competition."

Shah, meanwhile, has other concerns. "I'm hearing they are planning to make us wear an official kit but that's not something I'm looking forward to. One doesn't wear pants in India," says Shah, who prefers sticking to Indian wear.

Stepping out of that comfort zone would be worth it if they win a medal. "The medal is what matters," say Choksi. "It doesn't matter if you are 20 or 70. The cards are the same and the game remains the same for everyone."

At 74, Gupta is confident he can pull it off. Although the best result of his career came in 1985 at the prestigious Bermuda Bowl championship, he is confident he could find similar success over the next few weeks in Jakarta. And if the sport remains part of the Games, perhaps in the future too. "I still think I have the ability to beat the best in the world not just now but for the next 10 years too," he says. "I still have many good years left in me."