DUBAI // Nikhil Soneja’s working day is filled with computers, programs and numbers. But after office hours his time is dedicated to words.
As chairman of the UAE Scrabble Club, the softly spoken 36-year-old is rarely without his Scrabble board, timer, a dictionary or tablet computer.
Mr Soneja, who has been hooked on the word game since he was 8 years old and is ranked among the top 10 players in the Arabian Gulf, is credited with raising the profile of Scrabble in the country and the region.
“Bahrain started the Gulf Scrabble Championships and when it began there were participants only from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE,” said Mr Soneja, who grew up in Bahrain and moved to the UAE in 1997.
“But the person who used to organise the tournament in Bahrain suddenly passed away and there was a lull from 2009. The Gulf Scrabble Championship was in crisis.”
After the 2010 championship was held in Oman the decision was made to bring it to the UAE permanently. Since 2011, the annual event has been held at Dubai’s Etisalat Academy. The 24th event will take place in June.
“There was always a steady momentum in the UAE and there were always good players,” Mr Soneja said. “But the biggest moment for us was when we took on the championship.
“We were always participating in it but organising the tournament here was a big step. We had the facilities and other countries also wanted to come to Dubai.”
Since 2007, Mr Soneja has been organising games, tournaments and raising awareness about Scrabble through coaching camps for schoolchildren.
The UAE club now has a modest 100 members, made up of schoolchildren and adults.
“The number of schoolchildren has increased now. It used to be one or two kids from families who played Scrabble. But now it is more active and schools are directly sending them. With parents’ support, students are willing to travel to represent the UAE and that is a big deal.”
Despite the growing numbers, players are still mostly Asian expatriates.
“It just happens that there are more Indian schools involved. We would love to have more diversity because English-language Scrabble is not specific to any country.
“We have tried to reach out to more schools and have participated in events. We just have to get the word out.”
Mr Soneja, who has been trying to generate interest in Arabic scrabble, said his club was trying to get teachers involved by highlighting the game’s benefits for students.
“Teachers are very important as they can drive the game. It is something that helps in a student’s development.
“It is an all-round intellectual game and you need very good maths and vocabulary skills.
“It helps to develop confidence and decision making. It’s a fun way of learning.”
As more students get hooked on the game, Mr Soneja said the club will need a permanent venue to meet. “We used to meet every week at the Wild Peeta restaurant until it closed,” he said.
“They were very helpful and facilitated our meetings. But we now need a place that is central and where we don’t have to check before we land if they can accommodate a big and noisy group.
“Scrabble is a serious pursuit. It would be great if cafes or businesses could do a bit of philanthropy and host us.”
The club can be reached at facebook.com/uaescrabble