Mumbai radiologist Varisht Hingorani loves the word “otaries”. He doesn’t need it in his trade, he doesn’t know what it means, and what’s perhaps most telling, he doesn’t quite care. “We are not required to know the meaning of all the words,” he says.
The “we” Hingorani refers to are people hooked on Scrabb-le, the board game where users make words for points (the bigger the word, or the more it uses rare letters such as X and Q, the more the points).
Players pore over dictionaries, are at home with obscure words such as “aa”, and point out that “otaries” has an anagram: oariest.
National Scrabble champion Varisht Hingorani
Now, armed with a bagful of legitimate English words listed in the Collins Official Scrabble Dictionary (they may or may not know the meanings of these words), the 38-year-old Hingorani and three more of India’s top Scrabble players will represent the country at the 2007 World Scrabble Championship, sponsored by Mattel Toys India Pvt. Ltd, to be held in Mumbai on 8-12 November.
The tournament, with a field of 110 players from 42 countries, carries a total prize purse of $30,000 (about Rs12 lakh) and cash rewards for the top 10 players, with the winner picking up the lion’s share of $15,000. The Indian team was chosen on the basis of the last national championship held in Mumbai in May: Hingorani, as the Indian No. 1, along with runner-up Mohan Chunkath, an IAS officer from Chennai, were automatic choices; the other two made the cut as India, being the host nation, has been given four seats compared with two for every other participating country.
India has a huge English-speaking population, often touted as its singular advantage in businesses such as software and back-office operations, but it isn’t known what proportion of this is into Scrabble, a game that is the trademark of Mattel.
Mattel India managing director Sanjay Luthra says Scrabble is the most popular word game in India along with the rest of the English-speaking world. “We definitely see a big market (here),” he adds.
“We (Mattel India) pitched for the world championship as we want to promote Scrabble here.”
However, Toy Association of India senior consultant Indrajit Frank Agarwal reckons that only 8-10% of Indian children play the board game—video games are by far the most popular games in the Rs2,500 crore domestic toy market. “Scrabble is popular, but it’s mainly among the upper middle class,” Agarwal adds.
“It’s not a thing down the line—it takes from the club culture, and nowadays, in double-income families, educated parents sit with their kids playing Scrabble.”
The game is attracting serious players, too; an estimated 200 enthusiasts from Scrabble clubs in Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Goa and Chennai regularly play competitive Scrabble. The Scrabble Association of India anticipates a huge rush to sign up for a pre-world championship event in Mumbai, when Malaysian star Ganesh Asirvatham attempts to break the Guinness World Record of a player facing 22 opponents simultaneously, and defeating them.
Asirvatham will play 30 players, to be selected on a first-come-first-served basis, the association says.
Sponsors are trickling in, too, though association secretary Sam Joseph attributes this more to personal contacts. “Everything is based on individual level,” he says. This year’s national championship was sponsored by pharmaceutical major Bayer India Ltd and carried a prize purse of Rs50,000. Companies such as Reliance WebWorld India have also shown preliminary interest.
As a result of growing awareness for the game, mothballed words are being dug out of the archives and learnt anew. The word “aa”, for instance, isn’t an expression of satisfaction or the sound that a patient makes when asked to do so by his ph-ysician; it’s a thick and rough kind of lava found in Hawaii.
The idea, says Hingorani, who admits he was “miserable” in his first competitive tournament in 2000, is not to find obscure words, but words that use letters in approximately the same proportion in which they can be found in the 100 tiles that are used to make words in the game.
His favourite, for instance, is otaries, or the plural of otary, a species of big-eared seals. It’s ostensibly an easy word in Hingorani’s formula, with the letters O, T, A, R, I, E and S, enjoying the highest “probability factor” of being picked from the bag of alphabet.
The problem that enthusiasts face is that Scrabble is seen as a “parlour game” on a par with bridge, not as a sport. Consequently, winners’ purses are taxable. Cricket stars in India, however, are not taxed on their match-winning purses—often running up to Rs5 lakh or more—as the game is a recognized sport.
Hingorani, who believes Scrabble has to be seen as an “educational sport” (this will make it tax-free), had to pay a 33% tax on the Rs20,000 he received on winning the national championship. “It’s like winning a lottery,” he says. “You win, you get taxed.”