Gerry Carter is currently writing a major book about the international Scrabble playing community. “It’s not about the words or the strategy, but about the lives and sacrifices of the people who travel the world to play Scrabble. It is about obsession and alternative lifestyle”, he says. He hopes to publish the book in December 2016. We spoke with him about playing Scrabble in tournaments and his obsession with word play.
Gerry was born in 1961 in South London. He caught the travel bug while visiting a friend in Australia in 1980. He dropped in on a stopover to Manila. When he got back to London, where he was a journalist, he promptly quit and flew to Kabul. His first time in Thailand after that was love at first sight! Since 1985 he has lived in Bangkok continuously and has worked as a Thai teacher.
Playing Scrabble changed my life!
Gerry, you are now writing a book about international Scrabble players. But why do you play Scrabble?
I walked into a bookshop one day in 1991 and bought the OSPD dictionary. I started playing by myself. In 1992 I realized there was a big scrabble or Crossword Game scene in Thailand and I played my first pro tournament in May 1992. I was 12th.
Scrabble changed my life. Before I started I got angry quite easily. It helped to fill my mind and give my life purpose. My self-esteem rose as I got better and it helped to make me more social. Scrabble has given me enormous opportunity and I am very proud to represent Thailand and to have received a shield from the Thai Royal family for services to education through Scrabble.
What is the most interesting thing about Scrabble in your opinion?
Every game is different and a new challenge. It is wonderfully imaginative, creative and stimulating. I consider it to be a sport. Not just mind-sport, but sport. You need to be fit to play good Scrabble as the mental and physical sides are intertwined. I work out every other day in order to be mentally alert and fit to play Scrabble.
What is the worst part about playing Scrabble?
Bad sportsmen, not that we have any in Thailand. But I have met some on my travels around the world. I also dislike people who complain about the weird language we use. Who cares! Just learn it! And while I respect the need for rules I think that playing in a spirit of friendliness is most important. For me most of the rules are unnecessary if you are sporting. And also the prize money is not enough internationally to support me. I also dislike the attitude of some of the associations in the world who are protectionist and not serious about developing the game. Players have a responsibility to develop the game, be inclusive and encourage the young.
Are there differences between Thais and native English speakers when it comes to playing Scrabble?
Thais don`t usually think about meanings. It is more about math. We talk about the game in Thai, which I speak fluently. Thais have a very great strategic and tactical approach which I share. I am more Thai than English when it comes to Crossword Game, the way we refer to Scrabble here.
”Playing Scrabble in the tournament is great fun!”
How important is playing Scrabble in tournaments for you?
Playing tournaments is great fun and it is great to meet all the people from around the world. I stopped playing online. It is boring for me. I love the tournaments in Thailand. I travel to them by motorbike. When I go abroad I don`t stay in hotels, I do couch-surfing, often staying with people who have no connection to Scrabble who give me free accommodation and great encouragement.
What are the differences between Scrabble tournaments in Thailand and Great Britain for instance?
Tournaments in Thailand are in public, noisy and exciting taking place in shopping centers, malls and public halls. Many tournaments in England are in quiet church halls away from the public view. The game is played largely by young people in Thailand and by a much older crowd in England for example.
You took part in the WESPAC 2016 in Perth. What was the best thing there?
It was a tough competition with many of the best players in the world. Every game was tough and intense. The way it was shared with the wider community online could have been better. Perth was a great city to visit and the venue was good, but not in a very public place.
You beat Nigel Richards in round 16 with 434 to 350, right? How was it? What do you think about Nigel Richards in general?
I was luckier than him and played to the best of my ability. If I can do that against him I have a chance to win. He is a much better player than everyone else, but he can still be beaten if you play your best, remain positive and open, and go for it. And get lucky of course! I have beaten him ten times in 33. Frankly he is the best player to play the game of all time, by far. Nigel is an inspiration and a gentleman. He is also a good cyclist and nearly killed me on a cycling trip around the hills of Kuala Lumpur the week before the world championship!
The new WESPAC Champion is not Nigel, but Wellington Jigher from Nigeria – What do you think about him?
He is a calm character with a great demeanor and word knowledge. He has achieved the unbelievable for the continent of Africa and Nigeria. I think it is great that the World Scrabble Championships have been won by people from the non-English speaking world, with two champions from Thailand too.
The patterns in Scrabble create neurons that improve brainpower
How do you train for tournaments?
I use Zarf to create lists of high probability words. I write them out manually on endless bits of paper that I throw away as I master. I can only learn by seeing things written down. I play a huge amount of solo games opening Zarf to check I haven`t missed anything. I replay endgames in solo games again and again. I don`t use Quackle or Zyzzyva or play online anymore as I used to waste too much time on that. I vary the kind of words I study for variety so that I do not get bored. Study must be interesting or it is not worth doing it. You won´t retain anything unless you enjoy it!
Is it possible to learn a new language with Scrabble?
I don`t believe that Scrabble the game will help you learn to speak English. But Scrabble the experience and Scrabble the community will help you practice English in talking about the game. I learnt to speak Thai better by talking about the game, especially to Thai men in the early nineties. Maybe Scrabble can teach some vocab, but most of it is pointless in speaking. I think there is more to learn in mental preparedness, strategy, tactics, psychology, and math in Scrabble than English. The patterns of Scrabble create neurons that improve brainpower and make players smarter in a variety of other areas.
How can we get young people interested in Scrabble?
Make the game fun! Take the game to public places. Play in noise with songs and activities that interest the young. Give trophies and cash prizes as encouragement. Encourage teachers to take kids away for the weekend from their parents. Encourage established players to realize their responsibility in educating and being inclusive for young players. Be teachers of the young and help them. Be less concerned about yourself and promote the game for the good of its future.
Do you play Scrabble at home with your child?
Oh, no! She is only two! But I have already told her that one day she can play and if it hasn’t been done already she must be the first female champion of the world. Pushy dad!!
The most curious Scrabble word Gerry Carter has ever playedshowhide
The best play I have ever made was KAMAAINA for 176 in the Kings Cup in Bangkok about 20 years ago. I met a Hawaiian student at my school years later who was the only person I ever met who could tell me what it means
KAMAAINA = A non-native of the islands who lives there.
What are your secret hints for learning Scrabble words?
Find what suits you: Some learn by looking, some learn by swotting before tournaments, others learn with long-term strategies of study. Learn the highest probability words and constantly revised the most common fours, fives, sevens, eights and sixes in that order. Learn high vowel content words like five vowelled eights. Make sure you know all the 2-letter- and 3-letter words and never make a mistake on them. Some people could learn a lot by recording themselves reading lists and playing them back. I thought it would work for me but it doesn’t. The best memory tricks are to always pin a memory to something else – perhaps another word or even a situation or a person. Don’t learn things in isolation.
What do you think about the new CSW15?
I liked a lot of the new words because they had great modern meanings and were easy to remember. I learnt the most common 1500-2000 of them quite quickly and I think I have retained many of them after the WESPAC in Perth. Dictionary updates can be daunting, but serious players must do their best to learn the words, or at least the most high probability ones.
Gerry, thank you for taking time to answer our questions! We are looking forward to reading your book coming out in December.
Are you interested in Gerry Carter’s book too? You can preorder it via mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.