Sunday, January 14, 2018

Aabid Ismail and Janul de Silva: Unscrambling the scrambled

Words fascinate me. They were made for scrambling and unscrambling. For ordering and disordering. For constructing and deconstructing. They are what we make of them and don’t make of them. But on their own, they are not enough.

The World Youth Scrabble Championship is not the only Scrabble tournament organised internationally, but it is by far the biggest and the most recognised. That’s why November 2017 was so important for us: for the first time, Sri Lanka produced an international Scrabble Champion, along with a close Runner Up. That Champion, Aabid Ismail (who won 20.5 out of a possible 24 games), and Runner Up, Janul de Silva (who won 20 out of 24 games), share the same story, since both trace their beginnings to the same childhood encounters with the game, the same clubs, at school or elsewhere, and the same passion for what they are doing. I met them more than two weeks ago. Here’s what they told me.

I spoke with Aabid first. Like Janul, Aabid begins his story in middle school, and like Janul, he discovered his passion for Scrabble long before. Seeing his sister play it at family gatherings had gradually aroused his curiosity. What happened next, therefore, was predictable: he began playing it, against his sister, his parents, and his wider family. While these first encounters were casual affairs, Aabid nevertheless graduated. That’s when he joined his school’s Scrabble Club and when he met Janul. The first few days, obviously, had been intimidating: Aabid had not prepared himself for the timers which he had not been bothered with when he began playing against his sister, family, and friends. But then those first encounters helped. They pushed these two friends to the next level.

So what took these two to the game in the first place? Janul spoke up: “The fact that it begins with a set of random letters that coheres into a meaningful pattern.” Yes, but what was the wider motive, the overriding reason? Aabid spoke up here: “The tactics. How you transcend the letters you have and work around the limits they impose on you.” Since I am at best an amateur when it comes to Scrabble, I ask them at this point to lay down how they progressed from their school Club to the tournaments they took part in, before getting to those tactics. The evolution had been easy: because they were much better players than the beginners who usually housed that Club, they were emboldened enough to try out age category championships organised by the Sri Lanka Scrabble League. That evolution had been quick, coming in one year after these two faced their first competitions (Aabid with an age category individual tournament held within the school, Janul with an interschool Under 15 team meet).

At the Scrabble League the two of them had swiftly graduated from Under 13 and Under 18 tournaments to the considerably more difficult and challenging Open category, where they got to meet various subsets and demographics. “With age category matches you are pitted against those who are your age, who tend to hail from your background. It’s a different story when it comes to open matches. There are just so many groups of people you get to encounter. For instance, there are people in their 50s and 60s who play Scrabble as a pastime but later grow so passionate over it that they turn it into more than a pastime. Then there are people who played as youngsters, abandoned the game during their school years, and rediscovered it in their University years. Then there are A Level players. It’s all a hotchpotch actually, and we are thankful because it opened up our perspectives. You need that at Scrabble.”

For obvious reasons, all those encounters upped their ratings, so much so that that Aabid and Janul today are ranked in the top national eight: the official Scrabble League website ( has Janul in second place with a rating of 1399 and Aabid in third place with a rating of 1381. “Reaching 1000 is your first real achievement as a Scrabble player. These are all provisional ratings, because you need to play more than 50 games to get rated so highly. The two of us have played more than 400 games until now, which breaks down into an annual average of 100.” I get their point at once: while the quality of the game is more important, how much you play is important too. All this talk of numbers and scores, moreover, get me back to that point I left earlier: in a nutshell, what are the tactics and strategies these two resort to?

Firstly, a necessary requisite: knowing more words. “We can’t for sure determine how many words we know right now. They say an English professor knows about 15,000 words, Shakespeare would have known about 25,000, while an average Scrabble player, who has reached our level, would know between 40,000 and 100,000. We believe that for us, 40,000 would be a rather accurate estimate, since we have been playing for four years and have strived to learn about 10,000 new words each year.” Given the effort that goes into learning such words, surely constant practice must make it easier, I think, to add to this list of an ever growing vocabulary. To my surprise, it is not: “We must not only add to that list, we must also retain what we learnt last year. Right now we practice about an hour a day and learn new words for an additional hour.”

Navigating around what you know based on the tiles (Scrabble progresses with seven random word tiles taken from a bag, per turn) that you have, is trickier, and depends on those aforementioned strategies. “If you are a beginner who wants to show your opponent that you are ready for him/her and to hunt him/her down until s/he concedes defeat, you opt for what is referred to the ‘open board’, where you spread your tiles more widely and liberally across the board. It’s risky but it does tend to pass a message to the person you are fighting. On the other hand, when you mature in this game, you evolve to the ‘block board’, where you are more defensive, more bothered with what your opponent will do by resorting to a different tactic: equalising your worst case scenario with his/her best case scenario. We have evolved from the one to the other. We now know that a mature game-play depends on preventing your opponent from trumping you.”

Scrabble has its own dictionaries, its own quiz portals and software programs, and they all have aided these two youngsters. Those dictionaries and programs tend to teach you words based on the frequency on their use, however, which is not always an infallible guarantee. “Sometimes opting for common words can help, sometimes they cannot. Among the first 1,000 most frequently used words, we can think of ‘retains’. But using such words will not help you progress if you don’t play around with what you have. If you have a perfect tile combination, when all those tiles can be arranged to get a word, you are lucky. But that’s rare. You tend to get tiles with a difficult ratio of vowels to consonants. In such a context you need to play around with those ratios so as to restore some balance: if you get six vowels and one consonant, for instance, reduce the ratio to 4:3. Finally, you can also resort to synergy, whereby you compound bad tiles, or letters like Q and Z, with letter combinations like ING and ED and CE.”

So much for strategies, tactics, and the importance of vocabulary. But then there’s a world that exists outside these, which is why I ask Aabid and Janul to lay down their other lives. Both of them prefer Mathematics (not a coincidence, since Scrabble, like Chess, is very much a mathematical game based on probability and frequency) and each of them has his preferred literary tastes: Aabid with social studies and theory and (I am pleasantly surprised) Agatha Christie, Janul with a more varied fondness for fiction. The range of interests they indulge in at school is also varied: Interact, Drama, Debating (in Aabid’s case, both Sinhala and English), and Literary Societies (in Janul’s case, English).

Having paddled through several tournaments – the previous instalments of the World Youth Scrabble Championship (from 2015 onwards), the Astar Scrabble Challenge International in Malaysia (three years for Aabid, last year for Janul), and the World English Scrabble Players' Association Championship 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya for Janul (which Aabid didn’t take part in) – their latest victory portends many things, since it will, if the news is true, gain official recognition for the game. In fact that’s what these two bright youngsters talk about before they depart: with their family, their perseverant teacher in charge, Mrs Inosha de Mel (“She has been very enthusiastic about seeing us through, and we are grateful”), and their friends and other elders, they are resolved today to push the game forward in the country, especially through the largest school-based interschool tournament in Sri Lanka, organised by their school, Royal College.

Will they or won’t they, though? As that oft-quoted cliché goes, only time can tell.

Written for: The Island YOUth, January 14 2018