World No. 1 in Scrabble: Malaysian Ganesh Asirvatham on his love of the game

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The Ganesh Express was a nickname given to Ganesh Asirvatham for its then heavy frame and lightning turns in Scrabble. Aside from his politically incorrect allusions (he’s since lost the extra pounds), he conjures up a sense of speed and strength that isn’t often associated with the pun – and part of why Scrabble has struggled to survive after a boom in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ganesh describes the period as the glory days of gaming, when it was a popular social pastime – the Parkroyal Hotel Kuala Lumpur even opened the mezzanine to players with unlimited drinks and pastries on Saturdays – and the sponsors were eager to direct resources to tournaments.

His arrival at Scrabble was similar to that of many middle-class Malaysians around this time, picking it up at home alongside chess and Monopoly.

“Monopoly was more obviously interactive and fun, but parents have always viewed Scrabble as the most educational entertainment,” he says. “I was playing district-level Scrabble and chess in school, but eventually I felt a greater affinity for Scrabble. It seemed easier to me.

Ganesh has represented Malaysia on several occasions in international competitions, emerging second at the Scrabble World Championship in 2007, and is currently the best Scrabble player in the world, according to the World Association of English Language Scrabble Players (Wespa). He even held a Guinness World Record for most opponents played simultaneously by a single challenger in 2007, winning 21 of 25 matches in the record attempt in Mumbai, India. His triumph has since been overtaken by Sri Lankan national champion Lakshan Wanniarachchi, who faced 40 contenders and beat 31.

“[He’s a] good friend of mine, ”Ganesh says when I mention the new record holder. The worldwide Scrabble fraternity seems friendly, breaking down brutally when they go head to head in competition, then graciously walking away together. “There is a lot of brotherhood. We travel for tournaments, say to Singapore or Hat Yai, and then play a friendly on the way home to relax, maybe with some sort of bet to make things interesting.

Starting to play competitive Scrabble in his teenage years meant he came to the board with little experience in dealing with himself emotionally. It was under the tutelage of his mentor, former national champion Raja Fuadin Abdullah, that he learned grace and balance under pressure.

“When I was 16 my family moved to their neighborhood and we met playing on the same local circuit,” he recalls. “He was happy that I came and learned from him. The fact that he took me under his wing was fantastic because I wasn’t going to have this caliber of training anywhere else. The most important thing he taught me was to be a gracious winner and loser. My ego was huge; I wanted to prove that I was the best and I took it very personally when I wasn’t doing well enough.

“Sometimes I would walk past matches in progress and point out missed words or places to other players. People apparently don’t like it, ”he laughs. “I thought I was useful. He taught me to be calm and courteous, and to use losses to make you work harder. These are key lessons in gaining respect for who you are, and not just for your play. I am now passing them on to the children I coach. Children find it hard to lose; they are very upset and there are a lot of tears involved. But it builds character. This is part of the values ​​shared within the Scrabble family.

Ganesh trains several competitors for the 2019 World Youth Scrabble Championship which takes place in Malaysia at the end of November. “Some of the young players are almost as good as the adults,” he says. “Not all children are made to be good at school or at sports. A few might find a place in Scrabble. We work closely with Mattel [the manufacturing company behind Scrabble] and the Ministry of Education to create a platform to promote it in schools as a game to improve language, math and strategy skills.

Despite his enthusiasm, Ganesh retired from the competitive circuit in 2008. He was an English teacher when he reached the final of the 2007 Scrabble World Championship, but thought it was time to focus on his career.

“I had achieved everything I wanted in Scrabble: was world No. 1, came second in a world championship, had a Guinness record. I had to watch out for my livelihood. Scrabble is not common enough to make a living; it takes a lot of media buzz and sponsors to get it started, ”he says. Once firmly entrenched in the corporate world, Standard Chartered Global Business Services Senior Director of Human Resources decided to put his hat back in the ring – or rather put the tile holder back on the table.

Young people definitely have the advantage of preparing for competition, Ganesh concedes, because a fundamental skill of professional Scrabble – memorizing words – is much more difficult in adulthood.

“There is a long list of words you need to memorize, which gets tricky with age,” he says. It’s hard to quantify precisely, but a Scrabble professional would have an estimated vocabulary of 80,000 to 100,000 words, compared to 45,000 to 75,000 for the average person, depending on their fluency in English. “Many of these words come from different fields of study and their nomenclature or jargon; each element on the periodic table is a playable word, for example. I can use high value phrases, but what they actually mean in their fields, I have no idea.

The internet has also seen a tsunami of terms from all continents take over the mainstream. Rely on the faithful Collins’ official Scrabble words dictionary – the standard global reference updated annually to reflect the evolution of the vernacular – Scrabble players are active witnesses to this evolution of the language.

“English is spoken with a variety of dialects and slang around the world, and lexicographers must respond to the practices of the world’s English-speaking population,” says Ganesh, an MA in Linguistics. “In the past, they dictated the standard, but words take their own life online and find their way into the official language. We now use a number of Maori words in Scrabble [haka, aroha and heitiki, among others], next to words like qi and asana as cultural barriers break down. And with the evolution of technology, too, new terms like doxing and phishing come into play. ”

A vast vocabulary is useless without knowing how to work the board to your advantage, however. “You have to be able to see the words,” Ganesh continues. “You have seven random tiles in hand as well as those on the board. You have to understand what you can build, make sense of the chaos with a finite number of letters. Part of the strategy is to keep track of the consonants and vowels being played and adapt accordingly. It’s like chess, in that you have to play your opponent’s game as well as your own. Professional players are able to reduce the luck factor to an absolute minimum. Scrabble does not work on an elimination format. It’s more like a league system where everyone plays all rounds and has an equal chance of winning. “

The heart of the game, however, is making decisions. “Each round there are a number of words you can play and in a very short time you have to be able to engage in a particular game that will give you the best result. Decision making is a great skill that you can apply in all aspects of life. It teaches you how to quickly calculate the chances of success and the trade-offs of decisions made. No matter how low the odds of winning, I will always try my luck. “

In October, at the World English Language Scrabble Players Association in Goa, India, Ganesh will have the opportunity to pit his talent against Nigel Richards, one of the best players the Scrabble world has ever seen.

“He surprises me,” Ganesh says frankly. The admiration is not unjustified. Born in New Zealand and based in Malaysia, Richards is the only one to become world champion more than once (he held the title in 2007, 2011, 2013 and 2018). In 2015, although he does not speak a word of French, the lone player won the French Scrabble World Championship after spending just nine weeks studying the French dictionary, and repeated the feat again in 2018.

Used to a certain level of competition – Wespa lists his official highest and lowest scores at 709 and 264 points respectively – Ganesh will play with anyone interested in a match. “Whether I’m pushing my best game forward or really enjoying the game can be another thing,” he said tactfully. “But I still love the game. I constantly reinforce this idea with the children. Ultimately, you have to take advantage of it. As soon as it becomes a chore, give it up. There is too much work to do if you are not having fun.

“I like to collect obscure words and throw them on the ground,” he smiles. “There is so much fun in pulling out a word that you hold onto and asking someone to challenge its validity. One of my favorites was seeing the word “norm” on the board and expanding it by playing “norms”, which isn’t something you often get to bring out. There are a ton of words that I was waiting to let go, like wayleggo [A New Zealand shepherd’s call to his sheepdogs]. “

Funding from government agencies and corporate sponsors dried up during the recession of the 1990s, and the relative docility of the game (“Unless a few hundred points hurt,” Ganesh jokes) means it might never get. the allure of, say, electronic sports. In order to be elevated to a show sport and gain prominence in the media, which in turn attracts sponsors, some elements may need to be tweaked. “An MMA version of Scrabble,” he jokes – we think. Imagine the possibilities.

This article first appeared on August 26, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.


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