Winning wordplayers

"Bahuvrihi" Jakkrit Klaphajone answers without hesitation when asked what his best ever word playing Thai Crossword has been. "I don’t know the meaning – I think it’s Islamic. It was just a word I had memorised. But the best words and the highest scoring words are not necessarily the same."

Good positioning of a word nets a player more points, so a ‘boring’ word can score highly. But an unusual word remembered when the opportunity to play it arises can stick in a player’s memory just as vividly.

Jakkrit, a doctor doing research at Chiang Mai University’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, is currently the highest ranking Thai player on the unofficial international Scrabble ranking list. He believes that he is ranked atnumber 18 in the world, although he modestly says that it could be a bit lower now.

But back to his most memorable words : This year, the highest scoring has been "outdoorsy" for which he landed 141 points.

And his highest-scoring word ever was "quatorze", which netted him 232. "And my highest ever game score was about 680," he adds.

Amnuay Ploysangngam, president of the Thailand Crossword Club ( Thailand’s version of the international game of Scrabble is known as Crossword), is also quick to recall his highest scoring word. "Knowledge,for 212."

Jakkrit and Amnuay are among thousands of avid Crossword players in Thailand. And Amnuay is in no small way responsible for the phenomenal success of the game.

When he started playing Crossword 16 years ago with one of his teachers at high school, he couldn’t have foreseen that he would one day start Thailand’s Crossword Club and be organising national and international tournaments for the game. But he knew he was onto a good thing.

"I love this game!" he enthuses. "Playing it makes me happy. It’s fun."

He went on to study business administration at Assumption University, and during his second year started a logic club. "We played Crossword and other games like chess."

He started organising gaming tournaments. "At first I got by just asking my friends to come along and play in the tournaments, but by the third year we had members of the public coming along and it became much bigger."

In his fourth year at university, he set up the Thailand Crossword Club – so there’s no prize for guessing what his favourite game in the tournaments still is.

But still Amnuay’s vision wasn’t complete. "In 1986 I decided to organise the first Thailand Crossword championship. I was hoping that maybe we would get 25 players."

In fact, 147 players turned up to compete for the honour of being named Thailand’s first ever Crossword champion. The winner? Amnuay’s former teacher, the Reverend Brother Arun Methaset.

The second year saw more than 200 players compete, and the third more than 300. Other games were also played at the tournaments, but Crossword has always been the main attraction. The fourth year saw the first foreigner compete, and Amnuay also organised the first youth tournament (see box below).

By the fifth year Bangkok’s tournament had become truly international, with players from around the globe converging here with their word lists in hand, eager to play.

This year saw something like 4,000 players gather for the 16th tournament. Of those, more than 70 per cent played Crossword. The open division had 80 players, 50 of whom were from overseas, competing for prize money of US$6,000 (Bt200,000). And since 1998, the tournament has been honoured to accept a trophy from His Majesty the King to award to the winning player in the most prestigious division.

In between organising over the years – smaller tournaments happen around once a month – Amnuay invented a Thai-language version of the game, known as Kumkom, and a maths version, A-Math. And he still manages to squeeze in the occasional game with friends. He’s unofficially ranked at no 37 in the world.

Jakkrit, on the other hand, plays against his computer around three times a week – other players in Chiang Mai are simply too weak to give him a run for his money on the board. "I prefer to play against people, but they’re just not strong enough here. The computer lacks the psychological aspect. You can use tricks when you play with people – you can stare at a corner to make your opponent think you are going to play there. Or you can shuffle your tiles to make them think you have very good tiles when actually they are not."

Jakkrit hasn’t done too badly for someone who started playing "by accident". He was attending an indoor sports tournament at Chiang Mai university when a student, and the university had decided to introduce Crossword for the first time. "I was going to play checkers," he says, "but they asked me to play Crossword instead."

And he liked it. "At first people think that you need a good vocabulary to play. But that’s not enough," he warns. "Strategy is more important. It is like chess; you must use strategy."

The doctor started competing in the international competition in Bangkok six years ago, and finished as 1st runner up. In 1995 and 1997 he scooped the winning award. He next scored a place this year, again as first runner up.

He has also travelled to the US, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia to play. "I think I’ll play forever," he says. "I play to keep my life exciting. It’s a real boost."

Does he bother learning the meanings of the words he learns? "I like to remember the meanings, but can’t remember them all. I use link theory to learn them. I memorise the derivatives of words, and group them."

You would certainly need some sort of strategy to try to memorise the more than 200,000 two to eight letter words that are admissible in the game.

And that list changes, depending on where you play. Thailand, along with the US, Canada, Israel and Malta, follows the Merriam-Websters dictionary-derived Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), while the UK follows the Chambers dictionary-derived Official Scrabble Words (OSW).

Other countries, such as Australia, follow a combined list called "Sowpods", an acronym composed from anagramming OSW and OSPD. This list was first used at the World Championships in London in 1991, and at subsequent world championships since. "I have to separate these lists in my brain," says Jakkrit. "It’s a problem."

The prize money on offer can make such effort worthwhile though. In August, for instance, when the US hosted a competition offering the equivalent of Bt 1 million, several Thai players attended.

With that much money up for grabs, you can imagine some people getting hot under the collar when they lose.

"Some people do get upset when they lose – this kind of game depends on both luck and skill, so they can always blame their luck, " says Jakkrit. "In Thailand, foreign players can get upset with the level of noise at competitions. School children like to come and watch, and they can get noisy with their cheering. In other countries, it’s either very quiet, or they play soft music. You just have to accept the noise if you’re going to play here."

And for those of you who have been dying to know, the word "bahuvrihi" means a class of compound words whose meanings follow the formula "[one] having a B that is A" where A stands for the first constituent of the compound and B for the second; it’s also a compound word belonging to this class (greybeard, barefoot).

Maybe those word lists look quite alright without their definitions after all.

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