Indonesian billionaire gives up wine in pursuit of Asian gold

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JAKARTA (Aug 23): For Michael Bambang Hartono, a professional bridge player, the risk-taking and quick decision-making skills required in the game were instrumental in amassing his US$11.5 billion fortune.

Now the 78-year-old tycoon, whose family fortune spans from tobacco to banking and telecom, is bidding to become Indonesia’s oldest Asian Games medal winner. He’s paired with 65-year-old Bert Toar Polii as bridge makes its debut in the ongoing Asian Games in Jakarta.

“Bridge is how you train yourself in making good decisions and risk-taking,” Hartono said in an interview on Tuesday at Jakarta’s main venue for the Games. “You know what percent is the risk you take and the strategy. Bridge is a team game, you cannot depend on yourself alone. I work always in a team and am used to it.”

Hartono teamed up with his younger brother Robert Budi Hartono and took calculated risks to grow their empire, the Djarum Group. The conglomerate is among the top cigarette makers in Indonesia and also owns majority stakes in PT Bank Centr al Asia and PT Sarana Menara Nusantara. The younger Hartono is ranked as the richest Indonesian with a net worth of US$12.2 billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Passion, Prestige

Though Hartono’s passion for bridge has taken him to several international competitions, winning a medal at Asia’s biggest sporting event is more prestigious than any other as Indonesia is hosting the event, Hartono said.

“There are 45 countries competing now and the game is held every four years,” said Hartono, who is part of Indonesia’s super-mixed bridge team. “If every country wants to be a host, it will take 180 years for the game to return to Indonesia. That’s how important winning is.”

With bridge, a game of cards in which players rely on tactics and risk-taking rather than the physical superiority required in most outdoor games, there are older players than Hartono. Kong Te Yang, an 85-year-old Filipino is the oldest participant followed by Lai Chun Ng, an 82-year-old Singaporean.

Hartono’s introduction to bridge came early in life and he has since pursued it with passion.

Olympics

“It was during Japanese occupation, in 1944 or 1945. I would watch my uncle play bridge after school. He lived next door,” Hartono said. “One day, one of the uncle’s friends could not come. So my uncle told me, ‘Sit down and play.’ That’s how it all began.”

While the inclusion of bridge in the Asian Games took “a lot of convincing” because of the game’s similarity to gambling, Hartono says his dream is to see it included in the Olympics. With computer game competitions, or esports, being considered for the 2024 Paris Olympics, bridge may just be able to make a case for itself.

For the time being, the billionaire is focused on winning the Asian Games medal and has sworn to stay off alcohol during the competition after a glass of wine before the final at this year’s Summer North American Bridge Championships in Atlanta cost him the gold medal.

“I drank wine during dinner just before the final, then fell asleep. My partner was mad. He woke me up 10 times, I think, and also my opponent,” Hartono said. “I lost a gold medal because of that! In the final! So no more wine.”

The Asian Games will run through Sept 2 with the bridge supermixed team finals scheduled for Aug 27.