Word Warriors come to Bengaluru

In the Whitefield campus of technology major iGate, a most unusual tournament was on last week. It appears to many a curious bystander that all these people – of various ages and nationalities-were spending Monday morning playing intense games of Scrabble. At a table in the first row sits a man in a New Zealand t-shirt having just finished a game that his opponent is intently analysing.

Nigel Richards at the tournament. Pic: Siri Srinivas

You and I will not recognise the name but 42-year-old, Nigel Richards is the current world champion of Scrabble and a veritable legend. He had just won the iGate International Scrabble tournament with five games to spare. "He just creamed all of us", said Sherwin Rodrigues, the 21 year old prodigy, India number one and eventual runner up. At the other end of the room, a spirited game has just concluded between Diyath Visadamage (14) of Sri Lanka and Nikhit Ravishankar (14) from Mysore, at their first professional Scrabble tournament.

Here in the large hall were all time greats, legends, and wunderkinds competing for glory. These, ladies and gentlemen, are the superstars of competitive scrabble.

The iGate International Scrabble Tournament in its seventh edition has quickly evolved into a prestigious international event with the best in the world coming down to Bangalore every year to compete against the each other and for prize money that has constantly grown over the years.

What we always knew as a warm, household game reserved for Sunday afternoons also has a fiercely competitive side to it and the Indian scene is fast catching up. And by organising what ranks as India’s most high-profile tournament, the Bangalore Scrabble Club (BSC) is at the center of it all.

The club meets every Saturday at Karnataka Badminton Association Building on Palace Orchard Road.

Participants at the iGate International Scrabble tournament. Pic: Siri Srinivas

Heads were bent down in concentration over boards under the matter-of-fact illumination of tube lights. Player calculated points, toyed with their tile-racks as timer buttons were tapped at half a dozen tables. "We play at a rather intense level", admitted Sanjoy Gupta with a smile. Sanjoy, in his 40s, an advertising professional, has been part of the BSC for nearly 8 years now and is ranked in the India top-ten-a feat, he assures me, which was achieved after he began playing with the club.

The club itself is over twelve years old. Started by Rex D’Souza, a retired merchant navy captain and his writer wife Lenny D’Souza when they organised Bangalore’s first Scrabble tournament, it brought together many Scrabble enthusiasts and is now a strong and diverse community.

All of them have their own reasons for playing the game. Says Umita, "I started playing with my children when they were young and now it’s become an addiction". For 53-year-old Radhika Mahalingaiah, a journalist turned lecturer, however, it was central to her own education. "I grew up in a small town where even English was taught in Kannada. Scrabble -called Spell O Fun then-was my mother’s way of teaching us English", she relates.

Radhika, would get together with her journalist friends from The Indian Express and Times of India in the "90s to play themed games of Scrabble. Known amongst friends as ‘the-crazy-scrabble-lady’, an epithet she speaks of with much pride, the Bangalore Scrabble Club has provided a method to the madness, besides friends for life. "We’re all inseparable now." She says of the close community the Club has become.

The bonhomie is evident as everybody took a second off their games to say a loud hello to Rex as he walked in. The ever-smiling Rex D’Souza founded the club in 1998 with his wife Lenny. Rex and Lenny explain the game with the astuteness of professors: "It is a game that requires not only good word knowledge but strategy and skill", Rex explained "and so a lot of players put in a lot of work into it." He cites the case of a top player from Chennai who wakes at 4 am before tournaments and studies word-lists for hours (Besides an hour of Yoga, adds Lenny).

The preparation process is quite like that preceding an exam, says Sanjoy. There are over 20,000 seven-letter words. It’s impossible to remember all of them. And so we study high-probability words. While ‘studying’ is a continuous process, the intensity is stepped up just before a tournament. "I did quite a bit during the Christmas break" he says as with the seriousness I had until then seen only from GMAT patrons.

These pros have word lists in their cars and applications on their phones so as to not waste a moment. Lenny informs me, much to my excitement, that my name (suffixed with an ‘h’) was a valid Scrabble word in the Collins dictionary. Martin who had just won a game against Rex, quickly whipped out his phone and found that ‘Sirih’ is a betel-leaf climber plant. Oh well.

Martin, Lenny and Rex D’Souza at the weekly Scrabble Club sessions. Pic: Siri Srinivas.

"The objective is to manage your rack so as to always have tiles with a high probability to make words" explains Sanjoy. There is of course a crucial element of luck involved" cautions Rex.

 It is easy to think that their version of Scrabble seems far removed from our own leisurely idea of the game, but clearly winning isn’t everything. They all regularly troop off to international tournaments in the UK, Sri Lanka and Johor Bahru in Malaysia depending solely on personal finances or what Radhika calls the ‘Scrabble Budget’ – investing time and money all for a few good days of Scrabble.

The BSC routinely takes initiative in promoting the game. They have partnered with Mattel, owner of Scrabble and held workshops for people who are new to the game. The recent TV ad for Scrabble where a young Taekwondo student uses his superior vocabulary to escape punishment – You have Clinomania? Take rest, says the worried instructor – finds approval. "I want to see Scrabble on the sports pages of newspapers" says Lenny, and with good logic too: "If chess is a legitimate mind sport, why not Scrabble?"

They all agree that the game needs promotion; even as one can testify that their enthusiasm for the game is infectious —  I got home dying to play a game of Scrabble myself.

The Bangalore Scrabble Club meets every Saturday at the Karnataka Badminton Association every Saturday post 4.00 pm. For more information, go to www.bangalorescrabble.com

About Siri Srinivas 16 Articles

Siri Srinivas is a young working professional.

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