Men of let­ters: Thais mas­ter Scrab­ble with­out English

De­spite no­to­ri­ously low lev­els of English, Thai Scrab­ble play­ers are some of the world’s top-ranked – though they don’t know what their win­ning words mean

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

KOMOL Panya­sophon­lert strug­gles to string an English sen­tence to­gether, but the 31-year-old Thai com­puter pro­gram­mer is still hop­ing to be crowned cham­pion of the word­smith’s favourite boardgame, Scrab­ble, this week.

Komol, the world num­ber three, is one of sev­eral top-ranked Thais hop­ing to show­case their tal­ents in the King’s Cup tour­na­ment, which kicked off in Bangkok last week.

While he claims to have mem­o­rised “more than 90 per­cent of the dic­tio­nary” in English, he can only tell you what a few of those words mean.

“I mem­o­rise small words first, then big words later,” he ex­plained in Thai, adding that he tries to spend at least half an hour each day hit­ting the books.

With some 6000 play­ers set to at­tend, the King’s Cup is the globe’s big­gest Scrab­ble com­pe­ti­tion and an in­di­ca­tion of its wide pop­u­lar­ity in Thai­land.

The game is a favourite among school teach­ers, who use it as a lan­guage­learn­ing tool, and the king­dom is the only Asian coun­try to field world cham­pi­ons, de­spite its no­to­ri­ously low lev­els of English pro­fi­ciency.

Am­nuay Ploysangngam, who founded Thai­land’s first Scrab­ble as­so­ci­a­tion in the 1980s and is cred­ited with pop­u­lar­is­ing the game, said to­day nearly three-quar­ters of schools have Scrab­ble clubs.

“We never ex­pected that one day we would be­come world cham­pi­ons,” he said.

Yet the suc­cess of Komol and other elite Thai play­ers – none of whom is a flu­ent English speaker – is tes­ta­ment to what re­ally drives vic­to­ries in the top tier: an an­a­lyt­i­cal mind.

“At the high­est level Scrab­ble is a maths game. It’s like poker. It’s all about prob­a­bil­i­ties and man­ag­ing a rack [of tiles],” said John Wil­liams a for­mer di­rec­tor of the US’s Na­tional Scrab­ble As­so­ci­a­tion. “You don’t have to know the def­i­ni­tions,” he added. With play­ers at the King’s Cup lay­ing down words like “zooty,” – a syn­onym for flashy – and “vugs” – a small rock cav­ity – even na­tive English speak­ers could be for­given for fail­ing to recog­nise their own lan­guage on the board.

The world’s best Scrab­ble play­ers com­mit up to 100,000 words to mem­ory, a fig­ure more than dou­ble the lex­i­con of an av­er­age English­s­peak­ing adult.

“What makes [the Thais] ex­tra­or­di­nary is they have no con­text and are start­ing at a 40,000 word deficit,” said Wil­liams.

De­spite the Thais’ home ad­van­tage, this year’s King’s Cup ti­tle is ex­pected to go to Nigel Richards, the fa­mously shy New Zealan­der who dom­i­nates the field and is con­sid­ered the best player in the game’s his­tory.

The three time world cham­pion has won the King’s Cup 11 times and stunned the fran­co­phone world last July when he also won the French cham­pi­onship.

He doesn’t speak the lan­guage and only spent nine weeks study­ing the of­fi­cial French Scrab­ble dic­tio­nary.

Thai­land’s Komol, who lost to Richards in the 2013 world cham­pi­onship, still re­mem­bers his favourite word from that match – “gazumped” – mean­ing “to swin­dle”.

Not that Komol will be us­ing it much. “I al­ready for­get what it means,” he said. –

Photos: AFP

Par­tic­i­pants play a game of Scrab­ble dur­ing the King’s Cup tour­na­ment – the globe’s big­gest Scrab­ble com­pe­ti­tion – in Bangkok on June 30.

Photo: AFP

Win­ners de­scribe scrab­ble as “a maths game ... like poker.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Myanmar

© PressReader. All rights reserved.