KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian teenage Scrabble protege Tengku Ariff Shah can spell more English words than most adults in the Western world, but he doesn’t always know what they mean.
Ariff is among a swath of Asian youngsters who are turning the competitive Scrabble scene on its head by using a combination of probability, math and memory to defeat opponents whose first language is English.
It is estimated that roughly a third of American and half of British homes have a Scrabble board, and it is no surprise that tournament play in the crisscross word game has been dominated by competitors from the English-speaking world.
But in the junior ranks, teenagers from countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are in the ascendancy, viewing tile points and bonus squares as more of a mathematical challenge than a test of vocabulary.
“It’s a puzzle, it stimulates my mind,” 15-year-old Ariff said in Kuala Lumpur, where he was competing in the WESPA Youth Cup, the world championship for young Scrabblers. “We have to do quite a bit of mental math, so it helps us save time during exams.”
Ariff has a passion for unusual words, laying “senvy” during this month’s tournament, a bygone word for mustard seeds.
Though he concedes he didn’t know all their meanings, Ariff says he would love to one day get the letters to play “cwtching,” a Welsh word for cuddling, “mezquite,” a vegetation, and “qindarka,” an obsolete Albanian unit of currency.
The last three youth champions have come from Asia, while the last three adult champions have come from New Zealand, Australia and England.
Governments across Asia are funding after-school Scrabble clubs to build English-language skills, and parents increasingly see it as a fun way for kids to learn.
Malaysia’s Ganesh Asirvatham, currently the top-ranked adult player, said the lexicon game, which is often seen as a distraction on a rainy day in British homes, is becoming a development tool in Asia, a continent of more than 2,000 languages. “Asian players are conquering the Scrabble world,” he said.
“In Western countries, it is seen as a game, but many parents in Asia see it as a way of bridging the gap between East and West.”
The game’s profile in Asia has been boosted by the presence of New Zealander Nigel Richards, a five-time world champion who is widely regarded as the game’s greatest player ever. Richards settled in Malaysia two decades ago.
Richards even won the tournament’s French equivalent in 2015 and 2018, despite not speaking the language, after studying the French dictionary for nine weeks.
The winner of this year’s youth cup, Thailand’s Tarin Pairor, once took a game off Richards during a tournament in India and hopes one day to emulate his hero.
“Everyone wants to be world champion at least once,” Tarin said. “Even if I get world champion, I don’t think I would ever stop playing.”