x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Triple word hard core

Feature The UAE Scrabble Club is a small but fiercely competitive group and includes Akshay Bhandarkar, the fifth-ranked Scrabble player in the world.

Makbul Manji pits his wits against the veteran Scrabbler Ishtiaq Chisty at The Grind Cafe in Dubai. The UAE Scrabble Club includes member of all ages and all nationalities.
Makbul Manji pits his wits against the veteran Scrabbler Ishtiaq Chisty at The Grind Cafe in Dubai. The UAE Scrabble Club includes member of all ages and all nationalities.

It's a Friday afternoon in Bur Dubai, and most of the patrons at a funky little coffee shop called The Grind are sitting outside under umbrellas leisurely sipping mochaccinos. But not the men of the UAE Scrabble Club. They are deep in thought over their game boards, oblivious to the coffee machines gurgling behind them. The 10 competitors playing today do not want to be interrupted, and from the looks of their boards - chock full of alphabet tiles - they are almost done with this round. It seems more than a little stressful and onlookers in the cafe, perhaps put off by the competitive intensity, take a peek then quickly walk away.

These men aren't here for their health, after all. They are here to win the fourth UAE Scrabble Tournament, a monthly challenge organised by their small but fiercely competitive club. The group is about half its normal size today (perhaps they lost a few players to the lovely weather?) but the majority of its most stalwart Scrabblers are there, hunched over their boards. This group includes Akshay Bhandarkar who, at 28 years old, is the fifth-ranked Scrabble player in the world. He has been playing competitively since he was nine years old and says that when he can no longer play at championship level, he will quit the game entirely.

"You don't really see these players flagging at the end of it because they are very competitive and they're not looking to while away time," says Nikhil Soneja, one of the tournament's organisers. "They are interested in improving their game and winning and following the ratings. We're hoping that's something that will help us get some big-name sponsors and maybe offer prizes." This humble game of rainy day Saturday afternoons, has taken on a whole new competitive dimension. Sometimes it seems as though the players could bore holes through their boards with the intense power of their gazes. They don't look up for their entire length of their 25-minute sets. Their concentration is focused on the racks (wooden tile holders) in front of them and the job of picking out such Scrabble-legal but questionably English words as "ORA" or "QI."

Sold in 121 countries, in around 30 languages (including Welsh and Afrikaans), Scrabble is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. However, the first Scrabble World Championship was not held until relatively recently, in 1991. Clubs from have sprung up everywhere from Toronto to Kuala Lumpur - much like the UAE Scrabble Club in Dubai. The Middle East is a perhaps surprising Scrabble-stronghold. The UAE alone sends two contestants to the World Championship each May.

This is where Bhandarkar comes in. The pride of the UAE club, he is revered to the point of absurdity; one player called him "a lion" of the game; another called him a "local celebrity". Right. Still, the man does deliver the goods when he competes. Bhandarkar, who grew up in Bahrain, works in business development for an IT asset-management firm but admits that if Scrabble were more lucrative, he would like to become a full-time professional player.

"Unfortunately, there isn't as much money in it as there is in other sport - like chess, for example," he says. "If there was, I probably could have quit my job." Still, he has been doing a lot of preparation for another high-stakes, so to speak, competition in early December. These days, however, with a four-month-old baby boy at home, he has far less time to practice than in the past. Soneja is a baby-faced man of 30 who works in IT during his non-Scrabble-playing hours. Talking quietly, he explains that a large part of a player's competitive preparation is taken up with the memorising of words.

"An international committee decides which words are allowed," he says. "Sometimes it removes words, so we have to keep up to date with that, too. There were words that we might have used six or seven years ago, but that are illegal now." There are two Scrabble dictionaries, one for North America and one for the rest of the world, so players like Eric Kinderman end up memorising over 30,000 two to eight-letter words alone.

"It is just a daunting task," he says. "It's almost too much. It almost makes you want to give up, but something just drives you to do it." Kinderman, an American in his mid-thirties, has been playing competitive Scrabble for 10 years. He also works as an English teacher at a private international school in Dubai. With close-cropped brown hair and broad shoulders, he looks very sporty. That adjective could hardly be used to describe the other club members.

"I am the coach of the football team and the tennis team over at my school. Scrabble is just as competitive to me as a sport. It's a mind sport," he says. "I have played the best players on the planet - I have gone up against the Tiger Woods and Roger Federers of the game." Kinderman then goes on to speak about two North American Scrabble champions with the kind of adulation most sport fans would reserve for the actual Woods or Federer.

The UAE Scrabble Club has players from Kenya and Pakistan, America and the Gulf. It's sort of an intercontinental meeting of the minds. As such it's fitting that the club's members say they hope to include an Arabic Scrabble contingent soon, as well as including more Emiratis in their competitions. Its membership includes everyone from men who probably remember when the game first hit the market in 1948 to fresh-faced newcomers.

Speaking of which - in contrast to the young Bhandarkar, already a veteran competitor - one of the old campaigners playing at the coffee shop today is actually, well, old. Ishtiaq Chishty, 74, is a living legend. He might even be the world's oldest competitive Scrabble player. (The previous record holder for the oldest Scrabble competitor, Bil Rose, died in 2003 at age 98). Chishty got started playing Scrabble in 1960 while living in Saudi Arabia and working for Aramco when a friend brought the game back from America as a present. Though he now lives in Ajman, he drives down to Dubai once a month for the tournament and still has a trick or two left in his bag of letter tiles.

"He's still a very tough opponent," says Soneja. "People might underestimate him because of age, but that's the thing with Scrabble: if you've got it, you've got it." Chisty's wife played on the world Scrabble circuit until her arthritis became too severe to continue and the rest of the family has been keen to get involved. "Six or seven years back, three generations of our family were represented in the Bahrain tournament," Chishty says proudly. "Me, my son and my grandson."

At his best, Chishty was ranked number 42 in the world. As a long-standing player and the founder of the Saudi Arabian Scrabble Club, his commitment is obvious. "I enjoy it," he says. "I think that this game is very close to life. If you miss the opportunity to do something, it's gone." But Chishty won't miss anything today. Immediately after our interview he gets up from his seat and returns to the board, readying himself for the next round.