DUBAI // Fourteen-year-old Navya Zaveri’s seven-letter hat-trick in the final war of words on the Scrabble board yesterday has placed him among the top youth players in the world.
The Dubai-based youngster won 16 out of 24 games and was ranked fourth at the World Youth Scrabble Championship that began on Friday in Birmingham in the UK. He also won the best under-16 player title at the tournament.
The final match against this year’s winner, Michael McKenna from Australia, who was crowned champion after 18.5 wins, secured Navya a place among the most experienced teenage wordsmiths.
The pupil, from Indian High School Dubai, pipped his 17-year-old opponent with the words “seeping”, “relator” and “troelies”, which earned him 50 points each.
“All the matches were really tough,” said Navya.
“I got lucky in the last match... well, a little more lucky, because I got both the blank tiles,” said the elated pupil, as he readied to fly back to Dubai yesterday.
The young player’s strategy to make the climb from the 80th spot at last year’s youth championship to this year’s 4th place was knowing his weaknesses and being prudent.
“When I knew I was open, and they had more knowledge of words than me, I tried to close the opening and squeeze in as many points through triple word scores,” he said.
Navya began playing competitively last year and has been practising every day with online Scrabble boards to get this far.
“I have worked really hard for this,” he said.
Nikhil Soneja, a member of the UAE Scrabble Club and organiser of the Arabian Gulf Championships, believes Navya draws a lot of his tactics from chess. “He benefits a great deal from being a chess player,” said Mr Soneja.
“Like chess, Scrabble needs you to analyse the situation and think moves ahead, anticipating opponents’ moves.”
“The only difference is, in chess you only have a few finite pieces to look after, and with Scrabble you have to exercise that with a practically infinite number of combinations of letters and hundreds and thousands of words.”
Sanchit Kapoor, 12, who was also representing the UAE at the games, finished in 18th place with 13 wins. The only girl on the team, Shiksha Rout, was participating for the first time and ended 59th.
More than 60 children from 13 countries, including Malaysia, Australia, the UK and the US, participated in the event this year.
Karen Richards, chairwoman of the youth committee at the World English-language Scrabble Players’ Association, said all three UAE players had come on leaps and bounds since their last appearance.
“They are young players in a field of opponents who are 16 and 17 years old. They have more confidence in facing the competition this year.”
What she particularly remembered about Navya was his unfazed and resilient attitude after a defeat. “He is very mature,” said Ms Richards.
“He does not just sit there after a loss but manages to bring himself back and go on.”
But Mr Soneja had other insights into the youngster’s true feelings.
“There was one game where he lost by mistake and that made him nervous,” said Mr Soneja, who was tracking their progress from Dubai and speaking to them during matches.
“He got a word wrong, and his opponent challenged it. He was supposed to play her again the next day, and he was being hard on himself. Scrabble players are like that.”
Sanchit had a rocky start but adopted a better strategy later on to topple well-prepared competitors from Malaysia and Thailand.
“My first game was against someone my own age,” said Sanchit.
“I did not play like I expected to,” said the pupil of the Dubai Modern High School. Sanchit said he was thrown off his game when his opponent managed to score a quick 50 points with a “bingo” word early on in the game.
“I did come back with some good moves, but then later I started fishing for a bingo, and that was a bad move.”
He had a big win in his final match with a 617 margin on the score board.
Navya plans to participate at the Gulf Championship next year, where he will be pitted against players twice his age.
For now, wordplay takes a backseat. “I’ll have to think about it, because I have school commitments as well.”