In a downtown Bangkok shopping mall complete with blaring muzak and baffled onlookers, 72 of the world’s best Scrabble players take their positions for the first match in a gruelling four-day tournament.
They might be in one of the world’s premier tropical holiday spots, but these global wordsmiths are happy to eschew palm trees and pina coladas for their own version of paradise: the 17th King’s Cup.
Far away from Thailand’s white sands and turquoise waters, they are focused on the task of composing words from seven randomly selected letters and placing them on the board to win maximum points.
Despite his status as world number 14, star Thai player Jakkrit Klaphajone confesses to jitters.
"I’m nervous, but it’s usual for me. I always get nervous before tournaments," he says.
The young medical researcher usually hits the books — the list of 200,000-plus admissable words — three weeks before tournaments.
"I cram the words," he says. "And I usually play against my computer two or three times a week."
Jakkrit has lined his letter tiles up against Australia’s unranked Dianne Ward, a nurse thrilled to be playing someone of Jakkrit’s fame.
Unsurprisingly, he opens the game with a "bingo" — a seven-letter word that earns bonus points. His "berimes" is then chased with "reframes".
"Magic fingers you have, Jakkrit," mutters an admiring Dianne.
But when he answers his mobile phone during his next turn — as the clock’s ticking — she looks astonished.
The culture of playing in Thailand is quite different to any other country, competitors say.
The dull roar of a bustling mall, constantly trilling mobiles and the fact that the final two days are played in a stadium in front of thousands of screaming schoolchildren can be off-putting to those used to the pin-drop quiet of other international tournaments.
Australian player Bob Jackman recalls last year’s King’s Cup, when organiser Amnuay Ploysangngam addressed the children, who were competing in their own tournament, by microphone between turns.
"I played Amnuay while he was addressing a crowd of 5,000 schoolchildren in the stadium by microphone, which sat on our table when he wasn’t using it," he says.
"Scrabble might be more popular with the youth in other countries if it was played in a noisy, fun environment, as it is in Thailand."
The popularity of the game here among young people is phenomenal, and reflected in the fact that three of the top 20 players in the world are Thai — an amazing feat in a field vastly dominated by native English speakers.
"We promote it like a sport, and as a way to learn English. And we honour the people who are international players, just like tennis, football or any other sport," says organiser Amnuay.
"We try to promote our tournaments by telling people that if you win you can be a star in Bangkok or in Thailand — and you win a lot of money."
It’s not as lucrative as the biannual world championships in the US, where 25,000 dollars is up for grabs, but the 6,000-dollar prize money is enough to attract world number two, New Zealander Nigel Richards, who’s won the Cup three years running.
Words such as zowie, arvo, enroot, qat, axion and kraft criss-cross his debut game in this tournament, but he’s not compelled to use fancy words to explain why he plays.
"I enjoy it. It’s fun," says the electrical engineer.
Waiyapot Suttawassuntorn, a Thai-born engineering research associate and Britain’s number 165, divulges his all-time top-scoring word: "melanics" — then sheepishly confesses to not knowing its meaning.
But the point is to learn admissable words rather than their definitions, as the Philippines’ Jodi Gonzalez demonstrates when explaining his winning Scrabble technique.
He whips out his personal organiser to demonstrate how it’s programmed to give him all the anagrams of a particular combination of letters, so he can practice memorising them as he trains in Singapore, where he works as a technical writer and is ranked at number 13.
The Philippines, with 14 players, represents the largest overseas contigent at the Bangkok tournament.
"We’re the fourth largest English-speaking country in the world. Scrabble improves our word power, and a lot of us like puzzles, especially word puzzles," Gonzalez explains.
Back at Jakkrit and Dianne’s table, the final score is tallied.
Jakkrit has trumped Dianne, but she’s happy with her respectable performance against the Thai star.
"I’m out of his class — just getting this game is fantastic."