Scrabble players stuck for a venue

The UAE has some of the world's best scrabble players, but with no venue to practise, they have more than the draw of the tiles to worry about.

DUBAI // Mohammad Sulaiman may be the best Scrabble competitor in Dubai but he cannot find anyone to play a practice game with him. The problem is not a lack of good players to challenge his word skills. The UAE is becoming a regional powerhouse in the game and Dubai is home to several internationally competitive Scrabblers.

But its world-ranked players face one big obstacle - they have no regular venue to host matches. "Dubai has some of the strongest Scrabble players in the region," said Mr Sulaiman, who this year defeated one of the world's top players, New Zealand's Nigel Richards. "But there is no organised play." Five of the world's top 200 players live in this country, according to the the World English-Language Scrabble Players' Association.

The only other Gulf country with players on the list is Bahrain, which has two. One was caught cheating and banned from the game for four years, and the other scraped in at No 198. In regional competition, too, the UAE dominates. For the past two years at the Gulf Scrabble Championship, the team has won six of the top 10 spots. Its number of slots in the tournament - adjusted each year based on the team's success the previous year - has risen from one in five, to one in three.

To win tournaments requires hours of practice - and memorisation. Ralph Lobo, a 46-year-old Indian who moved to Dubai last year, plays about three hours a day, and nearly twice that in the run-up to tournaments. He has won the Gulf tournament twice and placed 36th in the World Scrabble Championship. For a competition in Sri Lanka at the end of the month, he is reviewing 2,000 words. For bigger meets such as the world championship he begins studying six months ahead of time.

"You need to be fresh," said Mr Lobo, who works as an engineer when not playing Scrabble. For such a strong group of players, the Scrabble scene in the UAE is relatively weak. Part of the problem is that like much of the population, good players come and go. A recent UAE champion, Akshay Bhandarkar, who came fifth at the 2007 World Scrabble Championship and won the Gulf Scrabble Championship four times, moved back to India in 2009 after four years.

Unlike some countries, the UAE lacks a Scrabble patron who provides the funds and space that players need to practise. In Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, clubs organise games several times a month. In Qatar, some schools run afternoon training programmes. Players in the UAE, who lack such a sponsor, began arranging games on a voluntary basis. For years they met weekly at cafés and hotels and held daylong competitions once a month. However, finding venues and prize money and co-ordinating schedules became too big a burden and the gatherings died down.

That has Mr Sulaiman concerned. Since moving to Dubai several months ago, he has mainly practised alone - playing on the internet, watching other online gamers play and reading Scrabble books. Ideally, he would like to play other humans five times a week, as he did when he began learning. He needs to draw tiles and record scores as he would in a tournament, he said. "All those chores you need to practise," he said. "I am worried."

Playing on the computer has its benefits, said Eric Kinderman, another UAE-based Scrabbler, who wrote by e-mail during breaks from a tournament in Dallas. After playing online, he can review his game and analyse the 10 best moves for each move he made. Another online programme (zyzzyva.net) helps him to compile word lists. "You wouldn't believe how many lists I have," he said. Mr Kinderman said he plans to revive the monthly meetings when he returns to the UAE.

Other Scrabble players want to bring in better competition by holding the Gulf championship, but they lack the budget needed to host 30 visitors, said Nikhil Soneja, a member of the UAE Scrabble Club. They also want to groom the next generation of players. The club has twice received invitations to participate in international youth tournaments but could not field a candidate. Mr Soneja and others have begun talking to schools to encourage after-school Scrabble programmes but have not gotten much traction.

They also hope to find a regular meeting place that draws not only competitive Scrabblers but also those who play for fun. "Getting new people in can be a bit daunting since we were running mostly all-day tournaments," Mr Soneja said. "But a lot of people like to play Scrabble casually. That's where we all started," he said. "At some point, the competitive edge kicks in." chuang@thenational.ae