India's Scrabble junkies brace to tip their tiles and play a bingo

Akshay Bhandarkar is a former world champion and the senior-most member of the side. Akshay Bhandarkar

Five Indians banging out anagrams out of three different cities are chasing a World Cup. The team of Scrabble junkies -- its youngest member a 19-year-old IIT Bombay mechanical engineering student and its most seasoned name, an investment product manager based in Dubai, 20 years older -- make up India's five-man mission at the Collins Coalition Virtual World Cup.

The 16-nation field is now down to four and India take on Canada in the semifinals on Saturday. In the other last-four encounter, Pakistan will face the US. A beloved subcontinent duel in the final could well trigger a Twitch-viewing spike.

The Indian scrabble team -- Akshay Bhandarkar, Sherwin Rodrigues, Udayan Grover, Nakul Prabhu and Aditya Iyengar -- have pulled off a few upsets along the way, with wins over Malaysia, Thailand and top seeds Australia in the quarterfinals. Rodrigues, Prabhu and Iyengar live in Mumbai, Grover in Pune and Bhandarkar in Dubai.

It's the first time these Indian players are coming together as a team for a major online international event. In 2018, a similar elite invitational event of ten top teams, the Alchemist Cup in Malaysia, was held. However, it was an in-person tournament and didn't include any Indian players.

"The event was wildly popular, and everyone in the Scrabble world was excited for the second biannual Alchemist in 2020," says organiser Evans Clinchy, who along with wife Jennifer founded the Collins Coalition last year. "When Alchemist was cancelled because of the pandemic, we began brainstorming ways to run an online substitute for it. I talked with Michael Tang (Alchemist tournament director) and the two of us together came up with the idea to do the Virtual World Cup."

Initially, a huge number of players got back to Clinchy with responses between "probably" and "definitely". The hardest part, Clinchy says, was "finding 16 full team rosters to fill out the field". Eventually, they did, with 80 players drawn from 16 top teams.

Among the Indian quintet, Iyengar has had the best results so far -- with 15 wins, five losses, a spread of 475 (difference between winning and losing score of games) and fourth position in the overall player standings. The third-year engineering student beat World No. 1 Malaysian, Ganesh Asirvatham and Australia-born poker pro and former scrabble world champion, David Eldar. He's, however, particularly proud of his play against UK's Phil Robertshaw, whom he beat 467-460. B-O-R-E-A-L-I-S (aurora in Earth's northern hemisphere) turned out to be the winning word for Iyengar.

"The decision to forgo bonus play in order to play a word to go out with in the final move, was what really paid off," he says, "When you see a bonus on your rack, you just play it. It's a pretty straightforward decision. But I felt forgoing it would be more optimal and it worked."

While Indian players aren't getting ahead of themselves and agonising over a possible final against Pakistan just yet, it's a delicious prospect for the organisers. "There's definitely been a lot of interest from the region," says Clinchy. "According to our metrics, India and Pakistan are both among the top five countries from which we get web traffic (the other three being the US, the UK and Singapore)."

Pakistan had its beginnings in the sport in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when a newly-married 25-year-old Pakistani, Ishtiaq Chishty, an oil company employee, received a scrabble set as a gift from friends in the US. In the 60s, tournaments organised by the late Chishty, fondly known as 'Baba-i-Scrabble' in Pakistan, started in Dhahran, which then spread to Riyadh, Jeddah and other parts of the Middle East. Chishty's wife, Malka, too began to play the sport and the couple's visits to Pakistan were a catalyst in the genesis of the sport in the country.

Over the past decade, motored by a robust junior program, Pakistan has turned into a veritable youth powerhouse for the sport. In 2013, three Pakistan players, including the overall champion Moiz Ullah Baig, finished in the top 10 at the World Youth Scrabble Championships. Last year, 13-year-old Syed Imaad Ali became the youngest player ever to win the Junior Scrabble World Championship.

Both Ali and Baig are part of the current Pakistan team at the Virtual World Cup, the former ranked third so far in the tournament player standings.

The rising stock of neighbouring countries in the sport was partly the reason Rodrigues, a multiple-time national champion, together with fellow player Varisht Hingorani, pitched in efforts to set up Wordaholix, a training initiative for junior scrabble talent in 2013. A senior marketing manager with the Mumbai Metro One, Rodrigues, 31, is on a year's sabbatical from coaching kids at Wordaholix, because of growing work commitments.

Currently, he's in the midst of helming the rapid transit system's campaign around the pandemic, readying resources to be on standby once the line is pressed into service for passengers. He's working out of office two days a week, the remaining three from home. The Virtual World Cup being scheduled on weekends is the perfect fit for him. "Since it's online, you get to play against a really strong and diverse field of players who may be hard to run into at regular tournaments. Of course, the flip side is you can never be sure that you've lost in a fair game."

The tournament, which has 25 games making up each match featuring one team each week, doesn't mandate for a live video stream or webcam to be turned on by players. "Cheating is a concern," says Rodrigues, "You can't help but think so when some words are played by those who're otherwise not expected to come up with them. But there's no foolproof way to go about an online tournament and so doubts are largely speculative."

Integrity issues aside, most Scrabble players aren't fans of the online version for its very modus operandi. Nigel Richards, a five-time world champion and the sport's strongest player, chose to sit out the event for this very reason.

"Board vision in a physical tournament is much better," says Rodrigues. "I mistakenly played an invalid two-letter word R-A, while intending an R-E. My opponent too didn't notice so he didn't challenge it either. In a physical tournament, you're scooping tiles out of the bag, placing them on the rack and then on the board with your hands so you're seeing and feeling them the whole time. The probability of using the wrong tiles is very little. In a virtual event, tile tracking, calculating word scores are all done by the computer, which leaves you with little involvement."

Bhandarkar, a former world champion and senior-most member of the side, concurs. An Indian expat working with the wealth management division of the Emirates Bank in Dubai, Bhandarkar hasn't had a great run in the tournament so far, with seven wins and eight losses. "It's been tough for me personally, but everyone in the team has contributed to get us this far," he says.

Rodrigues set up a WhatsApp group for the team in the run-up to this event, where they bounce off ideas, recount monstrous points and cheer each other up after ragged contests. "Most of us go back a long way, so we share a great rapport. For this tournament, I'm relying on past preparation but I'll resume studying in earnest once live events begin again. Against Canada, I think we have a decent chance and if it turns out to be an India-Pakistan final, we'll hopefully have more people following and watching. It can only be good for the sport," says Bhandarkar.

Tied to full-time jobs and without enough financial backing to travel to as many international tournaments through the year, Indian players have largely flown below the radar. Building words from their homes, they're now in with a chance to tip their tiles and play a bingo.