Competitive Scrabble is a young person's game, says Mohammad Sulaiman, 68, who nevertheless has won the right to represent the UAE at the world championships in October.
UAE Scrabble champion places big value on small words
Mohammad Sulaiman leans back in his chair, fingers steepled beneath his chin. He is talking about the importance of strategy. He is explaining the intricacies of mind games; the pitfalls to be avoided in dealing with an opponent; and the importance of understanding and utilising the secret weapons in your armoury.
He is stressing the necessity of swift reflexes and explaining how physical, as well as mental, agility is vital. He is lamenting the fact that all these elements - along with the rewards of international travel, glory and cash prizes that flow from them - conspire towards a young person's game. He is talking about Scrabble.
Sulaiman, 68, was recently named Gulf Scrabble Champion for the second year running. He successfully defended his title against more than 40 of the best players in the region. They had travelled to Dubai from Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to compete in the 21st Gulf Scrabble Championship (GSC), held for the first time in the UAE.
On June 25, after two days of intense play, Sulaiman collected the Dh25,000 cash prize and gratefully popped the GSC trophy back in the carrier bag he had used to transport it from his Dubai home earlier that day.
But it wasn't the victory baubles, or even the glory of winning, that made the achievement so significant for Sulaiman. It was the knowledge that with this win he is one step closer to realising his ultimate ambition. In retaining his GSC title, Sulaiman has secured a seat representing the UAE at the World Scrabble Championships (WSC), a biennial tournament that will take place in the Polish capital, Warsaw, this October.
"This," he says with proud emphasis, "was my number one wish. It is the most prestigious tournament and I am happy to have qualified.
"The World Scrabble Championship doesn't have a very big cash prize [the total prize pot of $50,000 is split between the top 10 competitors]. It's more about the glory."
For anybody who equates Scrabble with enforced family fun, and the clatter of sibling rivalry as "That's not a word!" is hollered across the board, talk of glory seems strangely out of place. But Sulaiman is unhampered by such associations. He never played the game as a child growing up in Pakistan. Instead, he first delved into the bag of lettered tiles at the age of 43 during a spell living in Sri Lanka, where his textile manufacturing company operated several factories.
He explains: "There are a lot of Scrabble clubs in Colombo and my friends were playing it there. They invited me along. They explained how you play and I enjoyed it.
"We were playing for a few months when I saw an advert in a Colombo paper saying there was a tournament so we decided to go."
Sulaiman entered the novice category. He was preparing to take his seat when a member of the Scrabble League edged up to him and quietly handed him two pages of closely typed words. None was longer than two letters.
"He said to go through the pages and try to fix those words in my mind because they would help me - for the rest I could rely on my own English vocabulary."
This was Sulaiman's induction into the elite world of competitive Scrabble. From the moment he received the winner's certificate that day in Colombo, he was hooked.
Today he explains the difference between competitive and social Scrabble with the zeal of a convert - and no doubt a few other "z" words, too.
According to Sulaiman, most people have a passive vocabulary of between 35,000 and 50,000 words, with their active knowledge being about a third less than that. A champion Scrabble player can, according to Sulaiman, possess 10,000 to 30,000 words on top of the average. Where amateurs fixate on the meaning of words, meaning to Scrabble champions is, well, meaningless. It just gets in the way.
What counts is cramming your vocabulary full of words that use up odd combinations of letters so that however consonant-heavy your rack of tiles you are never truly stuck. The fact that none are likely to be of any use in daily life is neither here nor there. As long as they appear in the Collins Scrabble Tournament and Club Word List, they count.
"How many 'Q' words can you tell me?" Sulaiman challenges with sudden animation before throwing in the kicker: "That don't use 'U'."
In the moments of silence that follow a smile spreads across his face.
"You see? I can tell you 35 or 40. They are very useful."
Warming to his theme, Sulaiman asks brightly: "The other thing most top-rated Scrabble players use is their secret weapon. Do you know what that is?"
Again Sulaiman's enthusiasm is absorbed by dead air. "Bingos!" he beams. These, the veteran explains, are seven-letter words that use up all the tiles on a player's rack, earning the player the points from the letters themselves and a 50-point bonus.
But words alone do not a champion Scrabble player make. Strategy is all important. Books have been written on the subject warning, for example, of the dangers of placing vowels tantalisingly close to high word-score tiles - opening up opportunities for one's opponent.
"It is like any other game. At a high competitive level it becomes more complicated," he says.
In the past 12 months Sulaiman's enthusiasm for the game has taken him to all points around the globe: from Sri Lanka to Malta, from Singapore to Bangkok and Bahrain. He has also been sent to Coventry.
Today he ranks somewhere in the top 50 players in the world, though he admits it is hard to pinpoint exactly where. He refers to those at the very top of the game - masters such as Ronald Credo, a civil engineer from the Philippines, and Kuala Lumpur-based Nigel Richards in reverential tones. New Zealand-born Richards is, according to Sulaiman, probably the "greatest player the game has ever seen".
He was once described by Michael Tang, organiser of the Causeway Challenge, a huge tournament held in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, as "the Tiger Woods of Scrabble". He is notoriously reclusive - a man of surprisingly few words.
Sulaiman says: "Everybody has their different ritual and approach at tournament. Some people don't like to socialise; others want to make small talk between games. It is friendly on the surface but very tense underneath, and everybody respects that."
For his own part Sulaiman travels without his wife, Bina, who remains at home in Dubai. "I'm not a support," she says bluntly as she passes through the lounge in which we are talking. "I'm a distraction."
Sulaiman demurs faintly. Pausing, he reflects: "I have played for a long time now. I wish I had started younger so I could go on to achieve much more. But, really, it is a young person's game. Their brains are fast, they think fast, their reflexes are fast."
In a game played against the clock - each player has 25 minutes to finish their game before incurring penalties - mental and physical agility matter. "The older you get the more time you take getting the tiles out of the bag, you press the clock more slowly, doubts start to creep in, short-term memory becomes less. It is a challenge to play against these younger, more alert players."
With that in mind Sulaiman's thoughts have turned to the inevitable time when his globe-trotting days of competitive Scrabble are over. In the two years that this former resident of Canada has lived in Dubai he has not, he admits, played a single game of Scrabble outside the competition hall. It is a state of affairs he hopes to change.
"I would like to help establish a real Scrabble scene here in Dubai," he says. "There is the potential. The scene is growing all the time all over the world. In America and Canada, in China, in Australia, Nigeria, India ... We can develop something strong here in the UAE.
"We have had the Gulf Championship here and it was a great success. I don't see why we can't develop on that. I really believe that Dubai can be a Scrabble centre of the world."
It is an assertion delivered with utter conviction. He may have built his success on two-letter words but, when it comes to Scrabble, Sulaiman isn't a man who thinks small.