Playing her cards right: Team Singapore bridge player and NUS data scientist on what the game and her work have in common

What do billionaire businessman Warren Buffet, Snoopy from the comic strip Peanuts and Ms Jazlene Ong, Data Scientist from the NUS Office of Data and Intelligence (ODI), all have in common? A passion for a good game of bridge!

Ms Ong picked up the mind sport in 2014, when she was a freshman at the University of Cambridge. She played bridge casually for a year before being scouted to Singapore’s national team, making her international debut at the World Youth Bridge Teams Championships in 2016.

Today, she juggles between being a full-time data scientist at NUS and a competitive bridge player participating in Asian and World championships. Her team’s most recent feat was winning bronze at the women’s event at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

An early taste of the game

Ms Ong first got a taste of the timeless card game when she was just nine years old. “A senior taught me how to play floating bridge, a version of bridge that a lot of kids play,” shared Ms Ong. “I remember being hooked on the game, and kept asking all of my friends to play with me.”

She attributes her strong enthusiasm for the game to the way it tests a player’s concentration, stamina, mental deduction skills and “silent understanding with (one’s) partner”. “As each hand you are dealt with is different, your logic and strategy also need to change,” she noted.

“In a game of bridge, you have to deduce information on your partner’s and opponents’ hands, and anticipate their moves – all with imperfect information. That challenge is what really draws me to the game,” she explained.

Players in bridge can only use a limited dictionary of bridge bids and signals during the game, and all other forms of communication between them are treated as cheating.

Partners for the win

To prepare for the Asian Games last year, Ms Ong trained with her bridge partner Leong Jia Min for two years. Practice sessions can take up to 20 hours a week and the duo also has to complete homework given by their coach. Whenever she could, Ms Ong, who also plays for Singapore’s youth bridge team, would squeeze in practice sessions with her youth bridge partner as well.

“Jia Min and I started off as friends before we started playing bridge together. She is a very good communicator − a skill I have learnt from her. So, for example, if our bridge logic differs from each other’s, we are able to talk through it and appreciate each other’s views. We also share very similar values so when it came to the Asian Games, we both agreed we will do our best and have no regrets,” she said.

Drawing on her deductive skills at work

Ms Ong’s decision to pursue a career in data stemmed from a machine learning course she took at university. “It was quite an intensive course with daily 9am – 5pm classes for two continuous weeks. But it was the most interesting course I took as it opened my eyes to the power of data and data-driven decision making,” she said.

At ODI, her work typically involves creating reports and dashboards for stakeholders across campus, to help them derive meaningful insights and aid in strategic decision-making.

Much like a game of bridge, Ms Ong’s work also requires calculations, probabilities and deductions made with imperfect information. She enjoys tackling abstract problems for which she gets to explore and design a creative solution.

A project she is working on that fits the bill involves the use of natural language processing, a branch of artificial intelligence, to draw insights out of module feedback from students. Ms Ong is developing a code that can comprehend and analyse large volumes of student feedback and distil it down to meaningful and actionable insights that will help professors refine future iterations of the courses.

“Not all aspects of my job use the latest technology or cool algorithms,” Ms Ong shared candidly. “There are also mundane aspects such as data cleaning. But it is a critical first step in most of our projects because the quality of your output is only as good as the data you put in.”

Having spent two years working at ODI, Ms Ong is excited to continue contributing to a growing team, broadening her knowledge about different aspects of the University and sharpening her technical and analytical skills through her projects.

Many strings to her bow

“I used to be a youth sailor for Team Singapore some years back, and when I could no longer sail due to injuries, an opportunity came along for me to play bridge,” shared Ms Ong. “So, part of me is excited to see what comes next.”

For now, Ms Ong uses her creative problem-solving skills to play puzzle hunts – a type of puzzle game that is not accompanied by any direct instructions as to how to solve it and figuring out the approach is part of the fun. When she has time, she joins the NUS Contract Bridge club in their sessions as a mentor.

Most recently, a friend introduced her to pickleball, a game that blends elements from badminton, table tennis, and tennis. So now, on most days, you can find the go-getter at the multi-purpose courts on campus playing her new favourite paddle sport with colleagues and students who are keen to give it a try.