“It’s not a word,” insists Tengku Ariff Shah.
“J-A-W-I is a word. I know it’s a word!” I protest, wanting desperately to put the eight-point “J” on a triple-word space.
“Well, there are some Malay words which are acceptable. This isn’t one of them,” he responds calmly.
I check the Scrabble app. He’s right. It isn’t a word. “Do I lose a turn?” I ask him half-sulkily.
“Yes,” he replies simply as I grudgingly remove my tiles.
It would be far less humiliating if I wasn’t being thrashed at Scrabble by a 13-year-old.
“He’s ruthless!” observes his father, Tengku Shahrir Tengku Adnan, before adding with a half-apologetic chuckle: “They’re all like that. They can be very competitive!”
By “they”, the 52-year-old father of three is referring to competitive Scrabble players like his son, who look at every word like something from a tool box, memorise long lists of arcane and specialised words, and who learn tricks for taking advantage of high-score spaces on the board.
Play for fun? Forget it. The mild-looking Form One student is out for the kill — even if it includes my fragile writer’s ego.
“Any word that wins me the game is my favourite word of that game,” declares Ariff, before putting out another seven-lettered word — a BINGO nonetheless — on the board between us.
He doesn’t smile much, his brow furrowing a little as he looks at his rack, obviously thinking of his next wordplay. It’s a serious game for him even though it’s not quite the same kind of linguistic jousting he normally faces during competitions.
In 2013, the-then 9-year-old Ariff won his first competitive game at the Astar Scrabble Challenge International (ASCI), the country’s largest Scrabble event for students below 18 years. He was the youngest contestant in the competition which included participants from neighbouring countries of Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand.
“I didn’t realise it was a big competition,” admits Shahrir. “He was the youngest at that time. I enrolled him for the Beginners category and Ariff soon found himself competing with Form 4 and 5 students. He didn’t care. He just played his game!”
FIRST WORD IN
What’s a word? Scrabble has been bound up in that existential question since the game exploded into prominence more than a half-century ago. You could go through several lifetimes and never hear the motley collection of abbreviations, archaisms, Greek and Hebrew letters in everyday speech.
“I once led a game by playing the word ZAXES,” Ariff tells me matter-of-factly. “It got me 62 points.”
ZAXES — A hatchet-like tool for cutting and punching nail holes in roofing slate. I’ve never heard of it, and would probably never use it in a lifetime of conversations.
But to Ariff, words come easy to him, even strange-sounding obscure words that are almost never used anywhere except for racking up points on a Scrabble board.
“He saw words everywhere when he was little,” recalls Shahrir of his son. “I noticed he possessed a natural instinct for words and letters. Whenever he saw the clouds or the leaves on a tree, unlike other children, he’d see letters and words.”
The proud father confides that Ariff would scour through thick medical encyclopaedias despite not understanding the words.
“He’d write them exactly how they’re spelt. Since I used to play a bit of Scrabble myself, I thought maybe Scrabble would be something he could build on.”
His son took to Scrabble like duck to water. His affinity for words and ability to conquer the game’s intuitive side had him making waves in his debut at the ASCI, also reputed to be one of the world’s largest international Scrabble events back in 2013 at the tender age of 9. He didn’t win then, but he did beat students who were seven to eight years his senior.
However, in 2016, Ariff would emerge champion for the under-12 category at the ASCI and this year, he’d win 1st place in the 9th MPSJ Subang Scrabble Challenge for the intermediate category. In the same year (2017), the youngster also took first place in the National Youth Scrabble Championship and has been the highest ranked student player (below 18 years old) in Malaysia since June 10, 2017.
“He certainly works very hard for it,” admits Shahrir. “When you reach a certain stage in the game, you have to work very hard, spending hours and hours every day memorising words. He puts in that time.”
In Scrabble, each step is geometrically harder than the one before it. As you reach competitive levels of playing, he explains, an all-out emotional commitment is needed, along with a time investment of hours of study and a memorised stockpile of Scrabble terms.
“I’d spend every night playing with my father. That’s how I prepare for competitions,” Ariff chips in. Does he beat his dad at Scrabble? Dad Shahrir is first to respond with a sheepish: “Yes. I refer to the computer when playing him, but I’d still lose!”
WHEN WORDS AREN'T ENOUGH
The young word-meister hasn’t had it easy despite his easy grasp of the game.
“It seems to be an ageing game,” surmises Shahrir before telling me that there’s a dearth of opportunities for young students to learn the game and play competitively.
“Ariff has to be pitted against much older students and even adults because there aren’t enough competitions organised for children his age,” he remarks, pointing out that most parents and even teachers don’t know much about the game.
Like those old games, competitive Scrabble is a math-brain exercise; one that combines spatial relations, board geometry and language maximisation.
However, most people playing online or at the kitchen table aren’t aware of Scrabble’s complexity, let alone its tournament culture.
Adds Shahrir: “It’s hard to form a team of students. There isn’t much support forthcoming from schools because they’re not aware of the game. So most of the time, we were on our own. It’s either seen as a game for adults or a family pastime.”
Almost without exception, players who become Scrabble greats are immersed in high-level competition at a young age. “There’s a need to start them young. You need to start early to be really very good,” he says.
There are young students out there with the potential of becoming Scrabble champions but with little support from schools and the lack of funds, most children who show promise in Scrabble drop out of sight before long.
“Look at Thailand,” he says. “They don’t speak English but they’ve produced strong players. Here we have the population and the talent pool but it hasn’t happened.”
He pauses before adding: “It’s challenging for Ariff. He’s often competing with older people, and he doesn’t have the opportunity to mix with friends his age in this arena. He feels lost sometimes. It’s an uneven playing field. He works so hard and he can’t win because he’s pitted against adults and long-time competitors. It can be frustrating.”
Nevertheless, the student from Sekolah Menengah Aminuddin Baki, Kampung Pandan enjoys playing despite the challenges.
“It’s my passion,” he says simply when asked why he loves the game.
“He’s a boy of few words,” adds his father, smiling. His favourite subjects being Maths and Science lend Ariff the acumen needed for the game. After all, Scrabble is more of a mathematical puzzle and less of an arcane pursuit for lovers of literature.
Still, Shahrir sees his son’s Scrabble future as a series of small steps to the top. As most competitive players are usually tutored by an older expert, Shahir made that all-too difficult decision to pass the reins of coaching Ariff to someone else. He enlisted the help of former national Scrabble champion Ganesh Asirvatham to mentor his son.
His father wistfully recounts: “After his first ASCI competition, I sat him down that night and told him that I would not be able to play with him after that. He was teary-eyed and asked me why.”
He pauses again, clears his throat and looks at his son with great affection before continuing: “He’s gotten too good for me. I can only do so much up to a certain point. After that, I just have to let go and trust that a great coach can take him further. I’m glad that Ganesh has agreed to do it.”
Ariff is slightly reticent but warms up once the Scrabble board is unfolded and the game begins. It’s clearly his comfort zone, and he smiles easily once the game is wrapped up (and I’m well and truly beaten).
I ask him for a winning speech and he smiles shyly, before saying softly: “I only wish that more students would play the game in school. Scrabble like my father said, isn’t just a serious game for adults. It’s actually for kids and it can also be fun.”
While the immediate future for me lies in buying a bigger dictionary, there’s no doubt I’ll be hearing more of Ariff, so long as he continues to play the game the best way he can — with a lot of passion and his father cheering him on.