DUBAI // He has memorised 25,000 seven-letter words and 32,000 eight-letter words, but he can't tell you what they all mean. He sleeps only five hours a night before a big competition, and drinks lots of Red Bull. His name is Ralph Lobo and ? yes, you've guessed it: he's a Scrabble fanatic. Serious players such as Mr Lobo know that Scrabble is not purely a word game. It's also about strategy and probability and nerves - all of which Mr Lobo and other competitors from the UAE have focused on in the run-up to a major tournament this weekend in Sri Lanka. Different players have different styles. Mr Lobo, a 47-year-old engineer from India, is intense and systematic. Another top player in Dubai, Mohammad Sulaiman, a 67-year-old Pakistani businessman, is more laid back.
A month ago Mr Lobo began reviewing more than 2,000 words, dedicating several hours a day to that and other Scrabble exercises. The list was just a snippet of the vocabulary he has built over 25 years, starting with the two-letter words, then adding threes, fours, sevens and eights. The short ones are handy because appear the most. The long ones score the most points, including 50 bonus points for using all seven tiles on the rack. The fives and sixes are less common and less lucrative, so don't reward study. "Many of those long seven and eight-letter words are rarely used," he said. "But for the next level of play you have to know them." Mr Lobo carried around long lists to study in his spare time. He reviewed them in bed until he nodded off. As the official dictionary was updated, he memorised the new ones and unlearnt the old. But he didn't bother studying many definitions. "Usually they are a waste of time, although they do help with knowing conjugations," he said. Mr Sulaiman did the same thing when he began playing 25 years ago. As Scrabble computer programs became available, he used them to create specialised lists: seven-letter words beginning with AIR or ending in ING. Words containing four vowels. And most important, the top 10,000 seven-letter words most likely to appear. "A good player knows all of those," he said. In the run-up to the Sri Lanka tournament he tested himself using a program that flashed seven-letter anagrams, which he rearranged into words within seconds. But he devoted only a few hours a week to that and other activities to keep fresh. "You either know your vocabulary or you don't," he said. "I'm not trying actively to add to it." He and Mr Lobo both played practice games to focus on other aspects of the game, such as strategy. Because each round of Scrabble is timed, players have to think fast. They must decide within seconds whether to place the highest-scoring word or to prioritise other factors such as "rack balance" - that is, keeping both vowels and consonants, common letters (E and S) and hard-to-use ones (Q and Z) - to make the next move easier. They might even choose to play defence by placing a word in the opponent's way. Towards the end of the game they try to use up their letters first, and leave the other player with the penalty for having unused tiles. All this requires tile-tracking, or staying aware of which letters remain in the bag and which letters the opponent is likely to have. As do many players, Mr Lobo carries personalised tile-tracking forms to mark which letters have been used. It sets the vowels on one side and consonants on another, easy and clunky letters in the middle. If he simply kept the letters in alphabetical order, he explained, he would not be able to see the balance just by glancing at it. Mr Sulaiman doesn't bother to tile-track. Instead he gets a sense of the tiles still in play by scanning the board or feeling the bag. "A lot of this depends on intuition," he said. This relaxed attitude carries into the tournament as well. While Mr Lobo gets keyed up ahead of competitions, staying awake and drinking all that Red Bull, Mr Sulaiman tries to stay calm. "I know some people are better than me. What can I do?" he said. "I don't get overwhelmed. It's just a game." @EMail:email@example.com