Dubai man wins UAE's place in 2013 Scrabble event
DUBAI // It may be a welcome distraction on a rainy day for most, but for Mohammad Sulaiman, Scrabble is a serious business.
Over the course of the past week, he pitted his wits against some of the best - and most straight-faced - Scrabble players in the world.
In doing so, the Dubai man notched up an impressive 23rd place in the World Scrabble Championship in Warsaw, Poland, which concluded yesterday.
"This is quite different from the normal social Scrabble," he said. "It's very competitive. It's no longer just a Christmas family game. It is sport for the brain and mentally very challenging."
The championship was held over five days - the most in the 20 years it has run.
Mr Sulaiman, a 68-year-old businessman originally from Pakistan, began playing at 8.30am and often did not finish until 7.30pm. By the time he was knocked out, he had played 34 games, and won 19.
"It was mentally exhausting, especially for me as I'm the oldest player," he said. "But even the younger players were tired."
Nigel Richards, of New Zealand, won the tournament, becoming the first two-time world champion. He also triumphed in 2007 in Mumbai.
Mr Sulaiman came to Scrabble late, aged 43, while playing with friends in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
He caught on quickly. He believes he now has a passive vocabulary of about 40,000 words, far more than the average non-Scrabble player's 7,000.
Even so, having a good game is far more about strategy.
"You have to make best use of your vocabulary," he said. "You have to create scoring chances, you have to watch for pitfalls other people are creating for you."
Mr Sulaiman admitted struggling for the first few days of the competition. A string of what he regarded as careless mistakes cost him two or three games in the initial stage.
"I was rather disappointed over the first few days with my performance," he said. "The last day I made up for it and won most of my games."
Crucially, he managed to make the top 50, which entitles the UAE to field two players in the next championship in 2013.
The result earned him plaudits from his peers.
"He has done his country proud," said Nikhil Soneja, the World Scrabble Championship co-ordinator for the region. "We've been following his progress closely online."
Mr Soneja, 33, a Scrabble player for 20 years, came second behind Mr Sulaiman in the Gulf Scrabble Championship this year.
He said he was delighted there was now a second seat in the 2013 competition, as he would like a shot at the title himself.
Mr Soneja is responsible for managing the UAE Scrabble Club, which meets at a Wild Peeta restaurant in Dubai once a month.
The club has helped to organise a free Scrabble "coaching camp" for players aged 10 to 18 at Dubai International Academic City on October 24 and 25.
The event will be hosted by Karen Richards, chairwoman of the youth committee of the World Youth Scrabble Championship. Her son, Alastair Richards, was the only teenager to take part in the world championship in Warsaw, representing Australia and finishing 10th.
"There are so many young people keen to learn the game here that they will soon overtake the adults in Dubai," said Ms Richards.
Events such as the camp, coupled with regular tournaments, are boosting the image of the game in the region, said the Toronto-based championships organiser John Chew.
"They've got a lot of good players in the Middle East," he said. "They've got the right attitude to the game and above all a good competitive spirit, so it should go from strength to strength."