Like most Malaysian children in middle income families back in the 1980s, Ganesh Asirvatham, 40, “was weaned on a steady diet of Scrabble and Monopoly”. When he was 11, he entered the YMCA youth championship’s competitive Scrabble and finished third.
After tasting victory, he was “hooked” on this word game. In fact, his passion for Scrabble drove him to excel in it. Currently, he is the world’s No.1 Scrabble player, according to the World English Language Scrabble Players Association (Wespa).
Ganesh said: “I had no idea (then) that there was competitive Scrabble in Malaysia and even a World Scrabble Championship.”
After he was introduced to the competitive Scrabble scene, there was no turning back.
Ganesh, who hails from Klang, Selangor, was an English language lecturer for 10 years before he joined the corporate sector. He now works as a senior manager of learning and development for Standard Chartered Global Business Services in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur.
He represents Malaysia in international Scrabble competitions. He was the World Scrabble Championship 2007 second runner-up and the former Guinness World Record holder in 2007 for the most Scrabble opponents played simultaneously by one challenger.
The record took place on Nov 7, 2007, in Mumbai, India. Ganesh played against 25 people, and won 21 out of 25 games. He was funded by the Malaysian Scrabble Association.
Playing with words
In his teens, he was the top junior player in the country from 13 until 19. He said: “Given my propensity to play really fast and that I was built like a large vehicle (weighing 130kg at one time, though he is now down to 80kg), I was assigned the moniker Ganesh Express by the late StarTwo Scrabble columnist Leonard Wong.”
At 16, Lady Luck smiled on him as his family moved close to the home of the then Malaysian national Scrabble champion Raja Fuadin Abdullah who took him under his wing and became his mentor.
Ganesh was already one of the competitors in Asia who represented Malaysian in the first ever World Scrabble Championship in Australia, at the age of 20.
He graduated with a degree in Linguistics from Universiti Putra Malaysia in Serdang, Selangor, in 2003.
“In 2005, I managed to break into the top 10 at the World Champs in London. And in 2007, I made it into the final of World Champs in Mumbai. That was the peak of my Scrabble-playing career as I also managed to get a Guinness World Record for most number of opponents played simultaneously,” he said.
“While at my zenith, I retired in 2008 to focus on other things in life,” he said. He has done solo backpacking through South-East Asia and India. In 2009, he worked in Somalia as an English language teacher and did his Masters in Linguistics before moving to the corporate sector. He’s also had a blast learning French.
Ganesh said that while he loves being in Human Resources, he keeps in touch with the world of Scrabble.
His love for Scrabble has never waned. He puts in a lot of effort to be where he is at.
“At my peak, I used to play at least 20 hours a week, either with another person or with the computer but more time was spent in word study. It’s absolutely crucial to be certain of the words that are valid, and this sureness only comes with hours of intense memorisation and the use of specialised software to help recall,” he said.
However, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to repeat that phase of his life. “Memorising is a painful process which requires many lonesome hours being focused,” he said.
In 2017, Ganesh resumed playing in competitions.He said: “I wanted to see if I still had what it took to compete with the best and, to that end, I put in a lot of work to get back to my best. It helped that I really hadn’t forgotten the words that I had learnt almost a decade ago, so the effort wasn’t as onerous as I had expected.”
At the end of last year, he took part in a tournament in Penang where 30 of the world’s top players competed.
“I managed to be the overall champion and this secured my ranking as world No.1,” he said.
This year, Ganesh will be representing Malaysia in the World English Language Scrabble Players Association in Goa, India, from Oct 16-20 and will go head-to-head with Nigel Richards, one of the finest players the Scrabble world has ever seen. Richards is currently ranked the world’s No.2 Scrabble player, according to Wespa rankings.
Said Ganesh: “We’ll be playing the best of 20 games to see who’s the better player. This will take place in Genting Highlands on Aug 24 and 25.”
Coaching young talents
Ganesh is pleased to have the opportunity to work with so many talented children in Malaysia and to see them find pleasure in playing and competing. As a Scrabble coach, he helps young players to develop their gameplay, and shares his experience on how to be a world-class player.
The youth Scrabble scene in Malaysia is exciting and highly competitive, he said. There are events for junior players almost every month. In fact, this year Malaysia is host of the 2019 World Youth Scrabble Championship from Nov 29 – Oct 1.
However, he laments that “it’s a tragedy that Scrabble is not seen as a cool sport”.
“It’s a highly accessible game. You just need to have a love for words and you can get started. It’s game of spatial reasoning, strategy and probability which makes it suitable for all ages as you outwit someone with your stronger word knowledge,” he said. Ganesh confessed: “I often get told that I should play with someone’s aunt or uncle or even someone’s grandmother who apparently has a killer vocabulary and is able to lay waste to opponents at will.”
Competitive Scrabble, he explained, is an exotic kettle of fish.
“The words that we use and the choices that we make are driven by sheer memorisation and the ability to make rapid-fire mathematical and statistical calculations on the go. The ‘mahjonggy’ feel of Scrabble as you rattle the bag in search of the right combination of letters can be subtly addictive,” he said.
For those who play competitive Scrabble, he said: “We go to sleep dreaming of big plays and recondite words that will elicit gasps of amazement. Across the board, relationships are paused as literal carnage ensues with words that have been played to excoriate an opponent. No quarter is given and none is asked.”He reckoned that there is nothing quite like the feeling of pummelling your opponent while they are helpless to defend and attempt to make a comeback of their own.
He likes to think that “competitive Scrabble is not for the faint of heart. Only the ruthless should attempt it”.