“LET’S play Scrabble,” begins Martin Teo, smiling invitingly as he unfolds the board on the table. Sitting across me, the Malaysian No. 1 Scrabble Champion promptly arranges the racks and whips out the bag of tiles with a flourish.
Methodically, he picks his tiles from within the bright blue string bag before sharing that he picks them in sequence: 3-3-1. Seven letters. “It represents my birth date,” he says, handing the bag over to me.
It’s inconsequential to his gameplay of course — his almost-superstitious approach to starting the word game, as with using his favourite wooden rack (“I bring it with me for every competition.”) but my bravado at wanting to play “the player” is beginning to waver. His quiet confidence unnerves me.
I just grab seven tiles from the bag clumsily, hoping to high heavens I don’t lose too badly.
He begins the game. First word: E-M-O. A three-letter word? Oh come on, Martin. You can do better than that. I respond with W-I-N-E-S, not without a little swagger. Take that, Scrabble Boy.
He shakes his head and tells me regretfully: “You shouldn’t have used your “S” too soon.”
And that’s when he overthrows me with his first Bingo — a seven-letter word that marks the start of my downfall: O-A-T-M-E-A-L. And I’m once again reminded why breakfast is my least favourite meal.
GAME OF MATHEMATICIANS
The game begins on a wrong note. A losing one on my account. Never mind that I’m a voracious reader and a writer, my feeble attempt at countering Teo’s extensive wordplay is as futile as it comes.
“Scrabble isn’t really a game for writers and wordsmiths,” he tells me half-apologetically. “It’s for people who like patterns.”
The secret is not to make an inspiring word — GIANTS, HOOVER (my only triple-word scorer) and of course, WINES (my epic waste of the S) don’t get me very far in the game. My aesthetic triumphs don’t count and score relatively low. Ridiculous little words used in combination on high-scoring squares, however, do.
“Two-letter and three-letter words are the fundamentals for those who want to start,” explains Teo before adding that memorising all of the two-letter words which enables multi-word scoring is something of a rite of passage into top-tier Scrabble competitions: “We advise beginners to memorise the two-letter and three-letter word lists if they want to take their game to the next level.”
M-O-X-I-E? I ask incredulously as he puts down the tiles. He pushes his phone over to me to check the definition. He has the scrabble App and I’m shown that Moxie is really a word, as are the other annoying multi-word, two-letter scores that come along with it, like HM, OO and EE.
“Those aren’t real words! Can you define them?” I exclaim, duly miffed.
“You don’t have to know what the word means, but you do have to know that it’s an acceptable configuration,” he replies, grinning.
He points out that high-level competitive Scrabble playing is more about memorisation and strategy. In an attempt to mollify me, he adds: “Scrabble is a game of mathematics. It’s not a game of words. That’s why even if you’re fantastic in English, you may not be great in Scrabble because there’s a lot of calculation involved when it comes to the game.”
For 30-year-old Teo, it was the local version of Scrabble that got him into the game. “It was called Sahibba and I was hooked the moment I started playing. I used to cajole my mother into playing with me after dinner every day!” he recalls, smiling.
While Scrabble is undeniably a popular board game worldwide (more than 150 million sets have been sold in 29 languages!), competitive Scrabble was still at its infancy in Malaysia when the-then 16-year-old Teo first took part in a Scrabble tournament.
“I overheard my teacher asking my friend to take part. I wasn’t asked so I volunteered myself!” he recounts with a laugh. “We went to the nationals in 2003 as an underdog and we won!” His gleeful recollection gets his eyes dancing beneath his spectacles and he adds as an aside: “Nobody knew who I was.”
The best part of venturing into competitive Scrabble was being part of the fraternity of like-minded people with a common love for the game. Eyes misting over, he singles out the one person whom he says was his inspiration during his early competitive days. “Her name was Paulette Yeoh, or Auntie Paulette, as I’d call her,” he recalls.
He first met her when he was 17 and a few days shy of his SPM trial examinations. Instead of revising, he played Scrabble online on the ISC (International Scrabble Club) till past midnight!
“I’d play with Aunty Paulette all night until she’d sternly command me to go to bed,” recounts Teo, chuckling. He finally met up with her during one of the early Scrabble tournaments and they became fast friends. “She was the most positive person I knew. To a young novice, her warmth, positivity and encouragement meant a lot,” he recalls softly.
A prolific Scrabble player herself, Yeoh succumbed to breast cancer in 2010 at the age of 62. “She already had cancer when I first met her. She was given six months to live but she went on to live life to the fullest for another five years,” he shares.
PLAYING THE GAME
A brief silence ensues and Teo looks lost in thought while I try to make sense of the tiles on my rack. Trying to form a decent word out of the blur of letters in front of me is beginning to give me brain freeze. Does he ever get stumped or make mistakes during a high-stake competition?
He exclaims: “Oh yes, definitely! Back in 2015, I made a mistake which cost me the National Championship. I played a non-word!” It seems he got mixed up between “lunaria” and “ulnaria”. “The second was correct but I picked the former. So I lost!”
“Scrabble is very much an endurance sport,” explains Teo, pointing out that after going through rounds of heated linguistic jousting, the intense concentration and focus can be both mentally and physically exhausting.
“Imagine playing eight games in a row on a single day. A player who’s not in good physical shape will be at a disadvantage. They wouldn’t be able to concentrate for prolonged periods and inevitably be unable to sustain a high level of game play. This is why I work out. Exercise helps build stamina which is needed for such intense competition.”
There are amazing moments as well for Teo. Back in 2015, he managed to beat two world champions, including World No. 1 Scrabble player Nigel Richards, as well as another world-class player from Thailand. “I beat three formidable players in a single day. It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” he says, proudly.
However, he remains pragmatic about his successes, declaring: “Anyone is beatable on a difficult day!”
CONTINUING THE GAME
It’s been a decade of Scrabble and Teo hasn’t looked back. Ranked 143rd in the world, he’s currently involved in running and directing several tournaments including the ASTAR Scrabble Challenge International (ASCI) organised by University Malaya and the World Youth Scrabble Championship. He’s attached to the World English Scrabble Players Association (WESPA) and represents Malaysia under the Youth Committee.
“I just want to give back to the Scrabble community and raise up junior players who can take on the baton,” he says simply. However, while Scrabble is starting to gain momentum in this part of the world (with a steady increase in the number of participants in the ASCI tournaments for example), its rise hasn’t been meteoric.
“Scrabble’s been fighting a lone battle here over the years,” admits Teo before adding that despite producing world-class players who’ve won world championships, little attention has been paid to the game. “Most people don’t take it seriously. It’s often brushed off as a living-room game and it’s tough having to deal with issues like funding and getting sponsors while maintaining the interest and morale of the players involved.”
Still he doesn’t plan to back down yet. “How can I?” he says, laughing as he scores another Bingo on the board. D-E-P-L-A-N-E-S and I’m grounded on the tarmac yet again. “I’ve dedicated a third of my life to the game, and remain addicted to the game.”
A lot of people, he adds, fail to see the life skills that can be learnt from playing the game. “Competitive Scrabble is a mind game which requires quick thinking, strategy, probability, vocabulary, anagramming skills, memory, being able to handle pressure and most of all, the passion to play,” enthuses Teo, adding: “You realise that there’s still an element of luck involved over which you have no control. But you play anyway.”
Then, placing his final tiles on the board (L-U-R-E), he concludes with plenty of panache befitting a true Scrabble champion: “There’s something about the game that keeps luring you back, again and again.”
SCRABBLE WAS INVENTED BY AN ARCHITECT
New York City architect Alfred Mosher Butts created an early version of the game. To determine how many tiles there should be and how many points each letter is worth, Butts calculated letter frequency on the front page of The New York Times!
IT WASN’T ALWAYS CALLED SCRABBLE
Back in 1931, the original name for Scrabble was “Lexico”, before becoming “Criss-Cross Words” and eventually “Scrabble”. “Lexico” is a shortened version of the word “Lexicon”, which is another term for “Language” or “Vocabulary”.
HIGHEST SCORE RECORDED
The highest possible score on one turn is 1,782, achieved by adding tiles to form the word oxyphenbutazone across three triple-word scores.
Nigel Richards, a New Zealander based in Malaysia, is the world’s “strongest player”, according to Hasbro. Richards doesn’t speak French but he won the francophone world Scrabble championships in 2015 after reportedly memorising the entire French Scrabble dictionary in just nine weeks!