DUBAI // Dylan D'Souza holds the Gulf Scrabble record for the highest-scoring word: "squatters", for 208 points.
Last week, he defeated one of the best players in the region, a one-time Gulf champion who has faced top competitors in a dozen countries.
Dylan is 12.
And this week he will be the first representative from the UAE to compete in the World Youth Scrabble Championship, held this year from December 8 to 10 in Manila in the Philippines with about 90 other players.
Despite his uncanny ability to spot seven-letter words - and defeat competitors several times his age - winning this week will not be easy.
The eighth grader only began playing last summer, and he will be facing college-bound teenagers who have been schooled in Scrabble for years.
"I'm hoping to get in the Top 20," he said, sitting in the family living room with his parents. "It's going to be hard to achieve."
Part of the problem was that for most of his (short) Scrabble career, Dylan has relied on his natural talent for seeing words amid a jumble of letters, whereas competitive Scrabble requires strategy and intense memorisation.
The spontaneous word-spotting began when he was nine years old and the family was living in Qatar. Dylan would rearrange his mother's tiles while she played a casual game with his father - and find a seven-letter word.
His parents didn't try to groom his talent. "He can do well at many things," Amitha D'Souza said. "We just thought he liked Scrabble."
But in the summer of 2009, when the family's holiday plans were unexpectedly scuttled, Dylan's parents decided to send him to the weekly meetings at the Qatar Scrabble League.
By the second session, the organisers so admired his talent they invited him to join six other Qatar representatives in the World Youth Scrabble Championship, held that year in Malaysia. He began playing every week.
In Malaysia, he placed 59th out of 81, with 10 wins and 14 losses.
The next summer at the Gulf Scrabble Championship, where he put down his record-breaking "squatters", he placed nearly last among the 30 competitors.
Dylan's parents tried to help him improve by holding marathon tournaments at home. They would play all weekend - in the region of a hundred times in a month. For motivation, they would award themselves three gold-plated trophies they had in the house, recruiting Dylan's younger brother Jaden to play MC and hand them out one by one. The trophies were then returned to the top of the fridge, to await the next tournament.
But soon Dylan so surpassed his parents that the tournaments died out.
In September, the family moved to Dubai, where there wasn't a league to send Dylan to for training. But the Dubai-based Scrabble veteran Selwyn Lobo, who represented the UAE three times at the World Scrabble Championship, took an interest in helping the boy learn.
He shared his invaluable word lists - pages and pages of common seven-letter words and words including high-value Qs and Zs - that Dylan studiously copied into a wide-ruled notebook.
He taught him the importance of "tile tracking", a tactic that can make or break the end of a game.
He visited Dylan once every few weeks to play a couple of rounds, and in their final session at the weekend was defeated by his pupil.
"He's sharp. He's got tremendous potential," said Mr Lobo. For this tournament, though, "he probably required more practise, which was unfortunately unavailable.
"Strategy counts a lot in Scrabble. It's not only word power," he said.
“Scrabble” is a real word, meaning “to grope around with one’s fingers to find”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word is worth 68 points if it is played without crossing any premium squares: 18 points for the tiles, plus a 50-point bonus for using all seven letters (or a “bingo”), according to US and Canadian Scrabble rules.
The game was invented by the architect Alfred Butts. According to the book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, Mr Butts devised the points system by analysing each letter’s frequency on the front page of The New York Times.
“Euouae” (a Gregorian cadence) is the longest word that can be played with only vowels. “Crwths” (the plural for an old Welsh stringed instrument) is the longest word that can be played with only consonants.
If you want to take your Scrabble game to the next level, memorise words that include J, Q, X and Z – the highest scoring letters in the game, and the most difficult to get rid of.