On a Saturday evening, India’s number one Scrabble player distributes a thick sheaf of papers to a group of teenagers sitting in a room in Juhu, a suburb of Mumbai. A large cloth Scrabble board hung on one wall; a few score sheets lay scattered on the tables.
Thin and bespectacled, Sherwin Rodrigues, 24, surveys the room. “You have less than three months,” he told the assembled group of nine, distributing the list of new acceptable words released by the game’s governing body. “So you need to study.”
Rodrigues, a multiple-time national champion, is trying to build India’s next generation of competitive players. Many of them are sitting in this very room.
The group has been training for the past two years with Wordaholix—a training initiative run by Rodrigues and 46-year-old Varisht Hingorani, the country’s third ranked player.
At least four players sitting in this room will be representing India at the youth championships starting on Oct. 31.
“This year,” said Hingorani, as he looks about the room, “we expect a better performance from some of our stalwarts.”
India has been playing in regular Scrabble tournaments since the 1990s. When the first youth championship (for under-18s) took place in 2006, three players represented India, including Sherwin, who was 17 at the time. He finished ninth out of 54.
Since then, as the governing body has tried to draw more children into the game, India has been sending more players every year—and can send up to 10. Last year, 20 players from 13 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the US and England, competed in the youth championship.
Back in Mumbai, students first learned about vowel dumping—what do you do when your rack is clogged up with ‘A’s and ‘U’s and ‘I’s. Then the class moved on to discussions over the group’s performance at a tournament over the weekend. Finally, Hingorani exhorted them to study their word lists.
Students shuffle the papers and speak among themselves. “What’s a qajaq?” mulls aloud Vedika Hingorani, 12, one of the students.
No answer was forthcoming. Not that one was required. As competitive Scrabble players well know, meanings are meaningless; it’s depth of vocabulary, strategy and scoring that count.
Part of the impetus to initiate the Wordaholix programme came from across the border. India’s ultimate rival Pakistan was not just beating everyone else. They had become a veritable youth powerhouse for Scrabble. In 2013, Moizullah Baig from Pakistan emerged champion, with two other players from the country in the top 10.
Sri Lanka was doing pretty well, too. “If other Asian countries can do it, then why are we lagging behind?” said Rodrigues. In September 2013, he moved to rectify the imbalance; Wordaholix was born.
Ranganatha Chakravarthy, a Chennai-based lawyer and active player, was confronted by the same thoughts. “Pakistan has produced a world champion,” he said. “It made me think, what about India?”
Chakravarthy also pointed further south east. “Look at Thailand,” the 43-year-old said. “They don’t speak English, but they’ve produced strong players. Here we have the population and the talent pool, but it hasn’t happened.”
He has been training 10 children every weekend, and believes they have already shown improvement, but said it would be another two to three years before they could really make a dent.
Across the border, the Pakistanis started their plans to conquer the Scrabble world half a decade earlier. The Pakistan Scrabble Association (PSA) launched its youth programme in 2010 in Karachi with 20 students. Now, that number has swelled to 100 selected at the start of each year across eight cities. “For young players it could be life-changing to represent your country,” said 55-year-old Tariq Pervez, who is the vice president of the PSA. “It’s something to aspire to.” Players train weekly and this year’s youth national championship is expected to have over 800 players in attendance.
Pervez also has a theory regarding why Asian players, whose first language is not English, excel in these tournaments. “Maybe it works in our favour, because people want to learn English,” said Pervez. It means the players take less for granted, study harder and practice more. Vocabulary is important, but knowing the language is not, as English world champion Nigel Richards illustrated when he won a French Scrabble tournament in July, without speaking the language.
In Mumbai, the younger players are gradually improving. At this year’s national open tournament in May, about 15 young players participated, up from five a few years ago. At an open tournament in Pune in July, one Wordaholix student, Samrath Singh Bhatia, 15, finished fourth, defeating several accomplished adults in the process. “Earlier, I used to play very fast,” he said. “Now I am playing slower, and better.”
In the world youth championship of 2013, India’s best performer finished 29. Last year’s best was a 21 place finish.
“We are quite good but players from other countries have been receiving another level of training,” said Aditya Iyengar, 14, who lives in Pune and was India’s best performer in 2013. “It’s all about preparing well.”
This includes memorising word lists, analysing different game situations, practicing “rack balancing”—the art of managing a good mix of letters.
This year Iyengar will not be representing India because of his upcoming board exams, but is determined to return to the competitive circuit next year. When he was playing seriously earlier, he would train with one of Pune’s senior players.
Schools across cities have Scrabble clubs or in-house tournaments. But several post-school Scrabble classes are also flourishing. Not all are competition-driven, but they are serving to expand the base of young players. In Hyderabad, Shaik Ahmed, 56, has been running classes for the past 16 years in schools, colonies and corporate offices. He even conducts tournaments among his own students.
In Mumbai, Carolann Pais, a top-20 player holds classes when children approach her to learn. In Delhi, the Ask Learning Centre has been conducting lessons, adding three new centres in the past few months as interest has spiked. The city even held a youth tournament in 2014.
“Previously children were not aware,” said Swati Gupta, 37, who runs the centre. “We’ve made them realise it’s not just another indoor game.”