In 2012, during a Scrabble competition in Northern Ireland, Toh Weibin, then an undergraduate studying in London, slotted in “beauxite” at the top of the board.
It’s a bit blurry but here’s what that looked like.
Now I know what you’re thinking. What the heck is “beauxite”, and then what the heck is “alligate”? And if there is a “forkier”, is there also a “spoonier”?
To quickly answer these questions:
Beauxite: A variant spelling of Bauxite, which is the most common ore of Aluminium.
Alligate: To connect or join something to something else.
And yes, there is a spoonier.
But back to the story. “Beauxite” landed on two triple-word squares, racking up a mind-boggling 275 points.
Here were the two plays preceding this monster of a word.
Toh had placed “Acetate” on the board, which netted him a bingo — which is when you use all seven tiles from your rack and get a 50-point bonus — but this also opened up a chance for his opponent — Rik Kennedy — to hit a triple word square.
Kennedy however for some reason decided to go with “Drows” instead.
And the rest is history.
This, along with Toh’s four other bingos (“Voguiest”, “Anaphor”, “Remained”, and “Alligate”), helped him get 850 points for the game.
That score smashed the previous highest game-score of 830 set in 2006.
And just like that, 21-year-old Singaporean Toh Weibin had set a Guinness World Record that has stood till this very day.
But not for long.
A new challenger
Fast forward 11 years, and I was absolutely killing it on the smartphone app Classic Words Solo.
And this was on the “extremely hard” level, a level I assumed even Toh would have some trouble with.
It was clear that I, about the same age as Toh, was the future of Scrabble.
Now, could I have just gone and defeated Toh right away? Yeah, probably.
But narratively speaking it might not have been too satisfying to defeat the final boss so early. Like any good fighting anime, I needed a tournament arc.
Luckily, Singapore’s Scrabble Association had a handy list of all the year’s tournaments and I decided to first take on Tampines Arcadia, and then the rest of the world.
I also emailed them some questions I had about the game. The President of the association, Cheah Siu Hean, very kindly replied and in a fortuitous twist, also roped in a familiar name.
Toh didn’t say much in the email thread, perhaps stricken by fear at his soon-to-be reckoning.
“Soon,” I vowed to the screen as I turned off my laptop and prepared to conquer Tampines Arcadia.
This was to be the scene of my coronation.
A modest setting, but one which would be a good ground floor for my eventual scale to the top/Toh.
The organisers, Edwin and Michelle Goh, were very helpful, giving concise and pertinent directions to the location so everyone could arrive on the dot at 10am.
At 10:30am, I rushed into the room, which was filled with contestants click-clacking tiles and rummaging through silken word bags.
I apologised profusely, attributing my tardiness to factors that were outside my control — my general lackadaisical attitude and poor time management skills — before taking my seat against my first opponent (slash step to the top/Toh).
Across the table was what appeared to be a primary school student.
Not wanting to assume too much, I quickly asked if he was in primary school.
He was. Lower primary.
Well, the route to becoming Pokemon Champion began with wrecking Rattatas, I thought to myself.
So like Anakin, I stood in front of a child with a mean face and then did a scene transition.
I won the match, but it was close. “Surprisingly close,” I thought to myself.
But before I could further burrow this seed of doubt, I was greeted by a cheerful hello from a bespectacled man.
I gasped. And muttered that familiar name under my breath.
His venom was palpable as he struck up a conversation.
“Good to see you.”
I smirked to myself. So he was this worried about this young (around the same age) upstart.
We made plans for lunch before I headed to vanquish my next opponent.
I sat down with another young opponent, confirmed my assumptions (another lower primary student), and proceeded to beat him by slightly more points than in the first round.
I envisioned almost a linear growth of points per game, culminating in a three to four hundred shellacking of Toh, hopefully by lunch.
There were two more games before lunch, followed by another four games after it.
I lost my next match by quite a margin. An upper primary student.
Then the next one. This opponent was in junior college.
After lunch, I lost all four matches, with one of the matches having the biggest points margin in the entire tournament.
A post-mortem of my performance would be futile, kinda like conducting an AAR after tripping down Mount Everest.
Do you analyse the individual slips? Or maybe you just shouldn’t have gone up Everest at all.
Was it my fault for not being prepared enough? No, it’s Scrabble that’s wrong.
What kind of competition requires eight one-hour games in a single day?
A real-life game was also way busier and more complex than the ones I was having on my phone.
Every play had to be documented on the score paper, which meant I had to do maths as well, something that was not disclosed to me before the game.
We were also asked to note which tiles had been played for some reason.
The amount of words that were playable was also unconscionable.
To slightly prepare for the tournament, I had memorised a bunch of two-letter words. Stuff like “Xi”, and “Za”, and “Zo”.
I couldn’t tell you what they meant if I had a gun to my head.
Here’s a picture I snapped of a game between Toh and another grandmaster.
What the heck is a “Xyloma”? Who is Laura, and why is she in the game?
The knee-jerk reaction by most casual players would probably be “that’s not really a word”, and knowingly or not, they would then undermine the people who are really good at the game.
“It’s just memorising” would be another common refrain.
I must admit, I almost fell down that train of thought as well.
And I probably would have, if I hadn’t gotten the chance to have a chat with some of the Scrabble experts in Singapore.
No, I suck
After my defeat to the junior college student, I joined Toh and some other Scrabble masters for lunch.
I was still a respectable 2-2 for the tournament then so I was in a relatively good mood, but rather mentally drained.
This brought me to my first question for the roundtable of grandmasters and masters.
Why are there so many games in a tournament?
Short answer: luck.
“Chess with luck” was the comparison some of them gave between bites of wanton mee.
It makes sense. It doesn’t matter how good you are if you keep drawing four “I”s and three “A”s.
I asked Toh if a youngster, like one of the ones I had faced, could theoretically beat him.
Turns out there was nothing theoretical about it. Toh readily revealed that some of the younger folks had beaten him before.
It was just part of the game.
And that sentiment was present in every player I talked to that day. A strong showing was quickly punctuated by “I had good tiles” or “I was lucky”.
A casual player might buy into this idea that a more favourable roll of the dice would have seen them emerge the victor.
But these guys are of course just being very nice and humble.
It takes a lot of skill. And it’s a shame that this little fact might not be recognised by casual players, or even the experts themselves.
How good are they?
Memorising is the unskippable first step.
According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, competitive Scrabble players spent an average of 4.5 hours a week memorising the Scrabble dictionary.
Once you get a firm grip on the words, that’s when the strategy comes in.
In the same study, three broad factors to Scrabble success were listed.
One was of course word fluency, knowing enough words to allow “rapid retrieval of appropriate words from memory”. That’s where the Xylomas and Lauras come from.
But the other two factors mentioned are markedly not word-based.
These are visuospatial ability and numerical ability.
The first one makes perfect sense. Visuospatial ability refers to the “capacity to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects”.
So things like quickly finding anagrams and identifying word placements from different angles.
Numerical ability comes into play throughout the game.
Players need to count scores and estimate probabilities based on what is in the tile bag and what letters their opponents might have.
That’s where the meticulous taking down of what letters have been drawn comes into play.
In that sense, it’s precisely at the end of games where the strategy aspect gets heightened, and where more time is used.
The experienced Scrabble players would theoretically not just be finding the best words to use, but taking note of the possible seven tiles on their opponent’s rack.
Here’s a really good video showing this exact strategic battle.
That channel, Will Anderson, has tons of these kinds of analysis as well.
But to summarise the video:
Nigel Richards, the best Scrabble player in the world, was faced with this layout.
Down by 37, these were the tiles Nigel had.
And these were the tiles his opponent Komol Panyasophonlert, a Scrabble grandmaster from Thailand who was ranked number three at the time, could potentially have.
The relatively poor vowel-laden hand Nigel has to play with leaves him few options.
Will identifies this option as a not-too-bad play.
“Ayu”, which would net him 18 points and cut off the triple word opportunity for his opponent.
But Nigel goes for this 12-point play with “Auf” instead.
Why? Is he stupid?
Nope, he’s just really really good.
Will elaborated on Nigel’s thought process:
1. He’s going for a later bingo.
By getting rid of A and U, he is hopeful that he will draw an L and a Q, which might theoretically be available, to go for this behemoth of a bingo.
2. He’s cutting off the opponent’s potential bingo.
So why not just put “Ayu” then? It accomplishes the same goal of getting rid of A and U.
Well, while it might get rid of the necessary tiles AND prevent a triple-word opportunity, Nigel is thinking even further.
Because if he — by some stroke of luck — gets an L and a Q, that means Komol will have these seven tiles.
Which, Nigel correctly identifies, will give Komol the chance to counter with a bingo of his own.
So how do you stop this? That’s right, you “Auf” it up.
3. He’s going for an alternate bingo.
But “Auf” has another purpose. If Nigel does draw the miracle bingo, there’s still a chance that Komol might play a word here:
Blocking the coronation of “Siliquae”.
To counter-counter this, Nigel must go beyond mice and men, which he does quite well.
Because of this “Auf”, he now has ANOTHER place to lay down a bingo: “Siliqua”.
All this stratagem in a matter of minutes.
And that’s the true gap, among other things, between casual players and experts.
Whinging about how they are using words that are not really words might be fun (and I will keep doing it) but it is a weak attempt to discredit just how good these players are.
They might be too humble to brag, but it’s really something else to watch them play at the highest level, like Jordan in 91 (but less fun).
Which is why being there at Tampines Arcadia was so surreal.
In the same small room were Scrabble grandmasters with decades of experience, teenagers with a couple of years of play under their belt, and excitable children at their first competition.
All crowding around at each other’s tables after matches to discuss how their respective games had gone, what other word they could have chosen, and how they would have played a certain hand slightly differently.
There was a real communal sense to the whole thing.
Community is also at the forefront of what the Scrabble Association is hoping to cultivate.
To Ricky Purnomo, one of Singapore’s best Scrabble players, it might even be more important than any tangible short-term winnings.
He has seen many “quality players” from Singapore “hold their own on the international stage”.
But Ricky also points to another faction of Scrabble players who are more casual.
“There are other Scrabble players as well who love the game and its intricacies, but at a different intensity, seeing tournaments as a chance to test themselves and socialise without measuring themselves by podium finishes,” he explained.
Take the Arcadia competition for example. From what I could tell, there was only one other player apart from myself who wasn’t in a Scrabble CCA at school or a competitive Scrabble player.
I was slated to face him for my final match.
Before that however, around the end of the sixth match, he approached me to kindly tell me that he had something on and would be leaving before then.
I was absolutely delighted. Multiple rounds of getting absolutely shibamboozled (maybe a Scrabble word I dunno) had taken its toll on me.
I wasn’t sure if that was the case for my fellow newbie, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he felt the same way.
Ricky alludes to this challenge as well in cultivating a community.
“I know of many people who have dabbled in competitive Scrabble, still love it, but feel they don't belong and drop out of the scene,” he says.
“I would like to see a community where there is a fit for everyone to feel they belong and stay connected to Scrabble and Scrabblers.
Be it the newbie who needs guidance, the hardcore player who wants to win something every month, the family man who can only squeeze in a tourney every other year, the seniors who want to have a friendly competition while keeping alert.”
After all, if there are way too many experts in a community and the three or four newbies have to keep going up against Xylomas left and right, some might rise to the challenge.
But most might just take up birdwatching or something.
Of course, the community is more than just the players themselves. New fans, supporters, and organisers are all needed to ensure a thriving community.
It’s a lofty goal for Ricky and the general Scrabble community, and it’s a blueprint they have to design from the ground up.
Ricky has introduced some initiatives to build up that community. Livestreaming matches, doing commentaries on said matches, and holding Scrabble workshops at Geylang East Public Library are just some of the cards being played.
So will all these be enough to take the game in Singapore to the next level? Only time will tell, but Ricky is clear on where this all needs to lead to:
“A community where all these people can drop in, feel welcome, and in turn want to see the community thrive and play their part in their own ways.”
It was with that spirit of community that I met Weibin for dinner a few months after the Tampines fiasco.
We talked about the state of Scrabble, how things might turn out moving forward, and the upcoming Nationals and World Youth championships.
It had been an eventful few months as well, with Toh now the number two in Singapore, overtaken by Hubert Wee.
All very cordial and friendly. I could see Toh loosening up as the dinner went along. It was going so well that I suggested maybe a fun casual game of Scrabble on the phone while the food came out. Toh agreed.
My elaborate ruse to get a one-on-one Scrabble with Toh had paid off, and we prepared for the fight of the century.
I started off strong, and was surging to an insurmountable lead by the second round.
Until Toh got a bingo about a round later.
Here was the final score.
A confirmation of the vast difference in skill between an elite player and a novice, or as Toh put it after the match, “lucky tiles”.
Top image from Wespa and courtesy of Michelle Goh