Unlike many at 60, Carolann Pais can marvel at her own memory—for words, numbers and even everyday chores. On train commutes and shopping trips, the words on billboards and advertisements never stay static in her mind. “If I see the picture of a lobster, I think of the word and then the words I can make from anagramming it, like bolster,” she says.
Word wise: Carolann Pais teaches Scrabble in Mumbai schools and conducts workshops on the benefits of the game. Kedar Bhat
Blame it on a decade of playing professional Scrabble. Mumbai-based Pais is one of the leading Scrabble players in India, and the highest ranked woman in the Scrabble Association of India’s national rankings. It’s a title she’s held for nearly nine years now, and playing at the iGate International Scrabble Tournament in Bangalore last month, she stood 18th among close to 70 participants from India and abroad.
Scrabble has gained strength as a formal sport only recently, without government support or funding—unlike countries such as Thailand, where the game is promoted as an English-learning tool and gets national backing.
All professional Scrabble players in India register with the Scrabble Association, formed in 2006 to consolidate the activities of the game in the country. With 200 members, a formal committee and a healthy annual calendar, the association is always willing to take in any enthusiastic player. But Pais says she can hardly see the sport becoming seriously competitive.
“I know at least 100 players in Bandra who play well, but are unwilling to play competitively. They say they don’t want to keep learning words without understanding their meanings,” she says.
Scrabble was always part of Pais’ childhood. Her Mangalorean family often played the game and she discovered she had a flair for words and math—both of which are inextricably linked for any good Scrabble player.
She played her first competitive tournament in 1999 and finished 20th in a group of 40. “I decided it was time to do something serious with this. I did a good amount of studying about the game,” she recalls. That, and a lot of practice.
She won first place in the national division of the International Scrabble Tournament in 2004 and Scrabble then began to occupy much of her time. “What got really challenging was learning the new two- and three-letter words that were only introduced as I started playing,” she says.
People began to ask her to train their children. Pais has trained three junior champions, of whom two have stopped playing owing to academic demands. “One of them, Pranav Damani, has done exceedingly well,” she says. Damani is the India under-12 champion and has bagged several prizes abroad, including the World Youth Scrabble title.
In November 2007, Pais was part of a Guinness World Record attempt by former world Scrabble champion Ganesh Asirvatham, an English teacher from Malaysia who attempted to play 25 games of Scrabble simultaneously. He won 21, and Pais was among the four he couldn’t beat. “My little Pranav also managed to beat him by 33 points, though that was at another tournament.”
The national rankings in India are intensely competitive and decided by a complex statistical dance of cumulative scores and staggered performance. Pais worries less about this number-crunching and prefers to talk of memorable opponents. “I have beaten every top player in the country at least once,” she says. Indian tournaments offer an average of Rs20,000 to winners. “Most players pay for their own travel. That is also why a lot of players don’t go for international tournaments, because it is too expensive,” says Pais.
At the iGate International Scrabble Tournament in Bangalore last month, she lost a final round match by one point. “But I did win the prize for the spread, which is the number of points you beat an opponent by. I beat my opponent by 330 points,” she says. In 2008, at a tournament in Pune, she won against her opponent by 400 points, a victory she remembers fondly. “I love playing against mediocre players! They’re so easy to beat,” she chuckles.
A day in Pais’ life is spaced leisurely. Her three children work abroad and husband Eustace is retired from the merchant navy. Her daily routine includes going to church (where she plays the organ) and working as a seamstress. Her practice sessions are confined to an hour before she sleeps.
“I don’t watch television or read. I prefer a game of Scrabble with myself.”
Though most players now practise on the Internet, Pais likes some solitary time with her board. Her husband joins her sometimes, though he admits he cannot play the game for too long. “Often, I leave the game midway and Carolann continues playing for me,” he says. “She studies her words with great determination—just like she plays the organ at church—and I try to do what I can to help; you know, booking her tickets to tournaments and asking how she fared after her matches.”
Pais says without regret, “No one in my family, not even my children, loves Scrabble the way I do.”
Pais makes a weekly journey from Bandra to south Mumbai, where she teaches children Scrabble. She has conducted workshops, organized tournaments and taken the game to as many people as she can.
A decade of professional Scrabble has kept her mind and memory sharp, and as she continues to shift letters around the Scrabble board, she keeps her penchant for words alive.
“I love the game so much, I’ll do anything to promote it,” she says with enthusiasm.