One Saturday out of every month, the Grind Café in Bur Dubai is transformed. Ordinarily, it’s your everyday shisha joint. But when the likes of Akshay Bhandarkar show up, with a pack of die-hard Scrabble players in tow, the café is taken over by the UAE Scrabble Club’s monthly all-day tournament. And they mean business. Take Bhandarkar. He’s been playing since he was just nine years old and is the world number five in competitive Scrabble.
‘My mum was a founder of the Bahrain Scrabble league,’ says Bhandarkar, who works at DIFC, explaining why he started playing from such a young age. Believe it or not, competitive Scrabble has been popular in the Gulf for some years now, with the Gulf Scrabble Tournament (GST) taking place in Bahrain annually since the early ’80s.
Nowadays, the GST helps decide who goes on to represent Gulf countries in the World Scrabble Championship, held in various countries every second year since 1991. But, in spite of this, many people remain unaware that Scrabble can be played competitively. This is something that Bhandarkar and the UAE Scrabble Club hope they can change by attracting new members.
Nikhil Soneja, a software manager who’s a driving force behind the club, says casual players are welcome at the monthly meetings. ‘We want to get the message across that this club is here and we’d like people to join,’ he says. ‘It’s a pastime for a lot of people at different levels, of different ages, nationalities – you just have to look at the cross section of people who come along and it’s remarkable.’
Casual players are permitted certain measures when they join, such as access to word lists before a game, helping even the field when they come up against veteran Scrabblers. Word is already spreading; club membership jumped from 20 to 40 players in the past year alone.
The club even had a starring role at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature’s fringe festival in February, playing a two-day tournament and stirring up plenty of interest in the process.
The monthly meetings consist of a full-day tournament, where players participate in up to eight games in a row. According to Bhandarkar, newcomers don’t remain nonchalant for long. ‘Most casual players evolve into competitive players,’ he says. ‘If I can use a cricket analogy, once you’ve played professional cricket, you don’t feel like going back and playing at amateur level.’
It seems new joiners can expect to develop themselves a sizeable Scrabble habit. Soneja says some members come from as far afield as Ajman and Abu Dhabi to play, and many have to catch a bus to attend. Soneja is now looking for sponsors to make the trip more worthwhile. ‘We’d like to commend players that perform well, so it’d be good to have sponsors who can provide prizes,’ he says. ‘We’re scouting around for new venues, too.
We’ve had a lot of interest recently and are expecting around double the numbers for our next meet, so we’re not sure how we’re going to fit everyone into a café.’
For both Bhandarkar and Soneja, the main aim is to get as many people playing Scrabble as possible. ‘We’re hoping to get more school students interested so we can have the next generation of Akshays,’ says Soneja. ‘We’re also hoping for our own international tournament based here in the UAE, where we can get players from other countries visiting.
It’d be great because, for one thing, we’d have a lot of home favourites.’ Fancy being one of those home favourites? Get yourself down the Grind café and start practising.
Competitive Scrabble has its own unique jargon. Nikhil Soneja talks us through the must-know lingo.
‘This is when you extend an existing word on the board with a single letter. Take the word “praise”; you can add a “u” at the start and it becomes “upraise”. Amateurs usually try to put down any single word to get rid of tiles, but with competitive Scrabble there’s a lot of strategy. With hooks, you can be forming four or five words with the same turn.’
‘This is one of the biggest things in competitive Scrabble. It’s when you use all seven tiles in your turn. You get an extra 50 points for that. Usually the person with the greatest number of bingos wins the game.’
‘Recently what’s been happening is when a person puts down a word, the opponent has to challenge it if they think it’s not a real word, instead of the adjudicator. There’s a bit of risk because the challenger loses points if it turns out that it’s a real word. So a phony is a word that’s not in the dictionary, but somebody has managed to play it because it’s gone unchallenged.’
Next meet on Saturday April 25 at the Grind Café, Manazel Building, Al Mankhool Road, Bur Dubai, 04 398 9304. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.