Sunday, August 30, 2009

King's Cup 2009 or Sparta Revisited

I have spent a couple of nights wondering how to start this article as, although Scrabble is a popular game for dreary winter evenings, it still has a long way to go until it can fill stadiums and have young girls in hysterics, asking famous players to write record words on their skin. Actually, this is one thing my wife keeps nagging me about: if I had to play a nerdy sport, why couldn’t I have chosen chess at least? It would have brought more money to the family, she says, though if my chess performances were anything near my performance from the King’s Cup this year, I seriously doubt my wife being happier with chess instead of Scrabble.
However, for us, “word freaks”, King’s Cup is a kind of Wimbledon or UEFA Champions League. King’s Cup will always be special for me, as it is the first major tournament I took part in after having discovered, thanks to my wife (I’m mentioning her here as much as I can, hoping that this would make my decision to attend several more tournaments this year easier to swallow), Scrabble in English. I used to play in Romanian and the game was just as fascinating, with the disadvantage of a smaller company. There are less than twenty serious players in Romania, so, had I continued to play in my native tongue, I would have missed the comradeship and the extraordinary moments spent with the “Fellowship of the Board”.
This year, I find myself for the third time in Bangkok, surrounded by familiar faces. I see Harshan and Helen from England, Cheah and Ricky from Singapore, Akshay from India, Jean and Geoff from the United States, Henry and Jocelyn from Malaysia and the whole Thai contingent led by Pakorn and Panupol ready to register. No, I haven’t forgotten Nigel, the World Champion, who seems to be trying to feel the vibe of the room by walking around it, absent-mindedly touching tables in passing. This is his thing and I have seen him do it many times, in just as many countries. I guess we, Scrabble players, all have our small idiosyncrasies; for example, I used to play wearing the same cap which I had worn when I won my first Scrabble trophy, at an insignificant tournament in Japan. It had been my first real competition and my first victory, so the cap stayed until I forgot it on a bus in England.
King’s Cup is an impressive and eclectic event, starting from the Opening Ceremony and continuing with the homage to the beloved Thai Princess. I must say I feel a surge of pride when I see the Romanian flag among the others: it is me who brought it there. I put Romania on the map of Scrabble (yes, I wish I could have given it more territory, but this may come in time. Even Caesar did not build the Roman Empire in a couple of years). I suppose the Thais felt a similar pride, as this year the Final of King’s Cup was played (for the first time in the history of the tournament) between two Thai players.
If there’s one thing Thai players are amazingly good at (besides Scrabble), that is multitasking. One by one, my Thai opponents were sending messages, calling their friends, spending five minutes to comb their hair. Yes, you read me right: combing their hair. I played a game with one Thai player who, instead of focusing on his rack, took out a comb and started passing it slowly, leisurely, Rapunzel-like through his hair. I haven’t yet decided what would be more amusing: to tell you that he had what the Japanese people call a “bar code” (a few strands of hair combed over a shiny bald patch, from one side to the other), or to tell you the truth of his actually very beautiful hair. Still, we were not taking part in a beauty pageant! Or was he trying to intimidate me by alluding to my receding hair line? Well, like any other competition, Scrabble can get dirty. I shiver considering the barbs future opponents might throw at each other:
“You couldn’t even remember the three letter words!”
“Your mother only spoke two languages!”
“You couldn’t even find an anagram for your own name” and many other such cruel, terrifying things.
I have always thought that Scrabble was a sport of the mind and that you had to be 100% focused in order to win. Well, these Thai players proved me wrong! Like battle-hardened warriors, they were laying down bonuses while merrily doing all the above-mentioned activities. At one point I even had a Thai party at my table. I was trying to come up with a good endgame, while my opponent was not that worried about the outcome. He was laughing and speaking in Thai with his friends. You can imagine what was in my head, since I cannot understand Thai at all.
Player A: “Your opponent has an X.”
My opponent: “Oh, so maybe I should block the X spot.”
Player A: “Yes, maybe it’s a good idea.”
Now, I’m sure this didn’t actually happen, but I think it doesn’t sound that extravagant either. During the games I had visions of ancient Sparta, the Thai version: players gathered in a room where all efforts are put into distracting them. They are surrounded by girls who have not seen each other in years and must share the latest news, musicians practicing for concerts, boys who have just discovered the pleasure of banging metal pots against each other and, why not, wives who explain the importance of sharing house chores to their husbands. They must play and respond to a stream of continuous and unrelated questions. The tiles are made of iron, hot from the furnace. Under these extreme conditions, their muscle brains turn into steel, just like the muscle of soldiers who had to march through the desert carrying their full equipment and being ready for battle at all times. And the tactics could be improved: besides sounds, a player should develop various kinds of resistance: smells (what if your opponent’s diet is based on garlic and onion?), charms (what do you do if you play against Miss Universe?), altitude (what, you have never heard of the Everest Cup? That’s what I’m training for now) and many other aspects which, I’m sure you agree with me, deserve our full consideration.
I am exaggerating, of course, but, as most males, I find it hard to concentrate on several things at the same time. I heard that Napoleon or Julius Caesar could dictate letters while talking to their friends and discussing battle tactics. In my case, I guess I will have to wait until a laurel leaf wreath is placed on my head to be able to do that. And since it may be a while before the honour wreath finds me and my receding hairline, I would be more than happy to play Scrabble in a quiet room. One where my opponent does not feel the need to re-connect with long-lost friends and family while I’m trying to find the best letter combination, one where my brain does not feel battered and bruised by the music blaring from speakers, one where I am not submitted to the “charms” of long-haired Rapunzels, however dandruff-free they may be. Considering my result this year, it may sound like sour grapes, but I’m sure my colleagues would agree with me when I say that an atmosphere where everyone can concentrate would be a sign of respect towards the players. I am also convinced that most of us would be willing to pay a little more towards the participation fee in order to ensure the use of a space better suited to our purposes. It is a shame that such a major event, one which has the blessing of royalty (does this happen anywhere else in the world? Not to the extent of my knowledge, although I wish I were proven wrong) should have so many logistic flaws. I have started my Spartan training already (for those interested, I suggest trying to read something in a train or bus full of Japanese high-school girls), yet I am hoping that organizers of the next King’s Cup will try to accommodate weaklings like me too, among the Achilles and Spartacus of Scrabble.