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Scrabble champ has the words to beat 'em all

Nicholas Hong of Maris Stella High School beat 107 competitors from 14 countries to win last month's championships held at the University of Western Australia, Perth. Pakistan took second place and England came in third.
Nicholas Hong of Maris Stella High School beat 107 competitors from 14 countries to win last month's championships held at the University of Western Australia, Perth. Pakistan took second place and England came in third.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

15-year-old Nicholas Hong comes up tops at World Youth Scrabble Championship

Atropine. Lauwine. Altesse.

Using such abstruse words, 15-year-old Nicholas Hong beat 107 of his peers from 14 countries to emerge winner of the World Youth Scrabble Championship 2015 held in Australia last month.

Pakistan took second place and England came in third.

Just don't ask him what those words mean because he is as clueless about them as the next person.

"I just learn how to spell them by copying them out on a piece of paper and after writing them three to four times, the words stick," said Nicholas, a Secondary 3 student at Maris Stella High School.

MAKING WORDS STICK

I just learn how to spell them by copying them out on a piece of paper and after writing them three to four times, the words stick.

NICHOLAS HONG, 15, from Maris Stella High School, who has, over the past two years, memorised close to 10,000 of the 120,000 frequently used words in Scrabble

Over the last two years, he has memorised close to 10,000 of the 120,000 frequently used words in Scrabble.

Singapore has produced only one other World Youth Scrabble champion - Mr Toh Weibin, who won the competition in 2007.

"The championship is a very big deal for the under-18s and it is a feather in the cap for him and for Singapore," said Scrabble Association president Cheah Siu Hean.

"Scrabble in Singapore doesn't have much in the way of resources, or enough active players, but standards still seem to be there. Maybe there is some kampung spirit where it's all for one and one for all," Mr Cheah added.

He estimates that there are several hundred students who play Scrabble in school competitions each year, and a regular core of 100 to 200 players who compete outside of school competitions.

The association sent three others for the world youth competition but they did not make it to the top 10.

Nicholas started playing competitively only last year. As he forgot to submit a form to choose a co-curricular activity (CCA) when he started secondary school, his school gave him a spot in the English Literary Society.

The society had two main activities: debate or scrabble. He decided on the latter as it is a board game unlike debate, which he associated with "serious talking".

It did not take long for Nicholas to fall in love with the game, which was invented in 1948 by two Americans. Players score points by forming words from individual lettered tiles on a game board.

"It's very fun because when you draw random tiles, every game is different and they never get old," said Nicholas.

He adopted a defensive playing style at the championships held at the University of Western Australia, Perth, looking out for spaces that his opponent could score in and putting his tiles in them to block his opponent.

"What makes Nicholas stand out is his ability to stay focused in a long tournament and bounce back after defeats. These are qualities that stay relevant outside of Scrabble," said Mr Toh, 25, a public servant and Singapore's previous world youth champion.

Nicholas' focus and mental dexterity comes from a disciplined schedule of constant practice.

While other boys may be kicking a ball around or watching a movie, he would be cooped up in a room most Saturdays from 11am to 7pm, battling it out with friends from the Scrabble Association.

He also plays Scrabble with schoolmates during CCA time every Wednesday and Friday. On top of these sessions, he goes online to play more games with friends and trains using a word-study software a few hours every day.

Even when he passes street or shop signs, his mind goes into overdrive trying to form anagrams out of random words. "I don't find it tedious because I enjoy learning new words and improving my game."

However, he does not score As for English because some words used in Scrabble are too obscure to be used incompositions.

As youth champion, Nicholas qualified for the World English Scrabble Players' Association Championship, also held in Australia earlier this month.

But he had to give up his spot, partly because he had to attend extra lessons in school to prepare for the O levels next year.

He said his parents are supportive of his interest in Scrabble as long as it does not affect his grades.

He intends to continue with the wordy obsession and is saving the prize money of A$1,200 ($1,230) to fund his trip to France, where the next youth and world championships will be held next year.

Said Nicholas: "Perhaps it is fate that brought me to the game but I believe in creating my own luck by learning as many words as I can."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline 'Scrabble champ has the words to beat 'em all'. Print Edition | Subscribe