Putting words in his mouth


The ranking of a Thai in third place in the World Scrabble Championships comes as a surprise to everyone except the champ himself

It’s rare that the World Scrabble Calendar makes it to the newspapers, never mind the front page, but the recent release of the World’s English-Language Scrabble Players Association’s rankings made the headlines after Komol Panyasophonlert – a “Thai with no English” – was crowned the world’s number three player.
    After completing 1,058 games across the globe throughout the course of eight years, the 31 year-old programmer from Bangkok gained the average score of 434.68 and took the number three spot on the list. Foreign news agencies were quick to pick up on the story, writing features about the Thai wordsmith and portraying him as a winner who “speaks no English”.
    Our interest was piqued so we sat down for a chat with Komol to learn more about his latest achievement.

How did you get to become the number three in the Wespa World Scrabble Championship?
     Actually it’s a rating system and not a one-off world final like most people think. You go to several competitions and your scores are accumulated along the way then calculated and ranked. They have to be big international events with awards up to US$2,500 (Bt87,500) or more for the scores to be eligible for the ranking. I did well at my last competition in Cape Town in February, and that got me to number three. I’ve been collecting my scores for eight years now, and I’ve been to many international events. My next event might cost me my title and send me to a lower position. You never know. Positions change all the time in this kind of competition.

Is this your highest ranking?
No. I was the world’s number two in 2013. And two Thai players have made it to the number one position – Panupol Sujjayakorn in 2003 and Pakorn Nemitrmansuk in 2009. Thailand is no stranger to international Scrabble matches and there are many more avid Thai players than most people realise.

How come we didn’t hear about you in 2013?
    I don’t really know [laughs]. I didn’t do it for fame or anything. It’s more like a personal challenge and the constant battle to get better and better. This year I drew the attention of the press with several international news articles describing me as a Scrabble winner who speaks no English, and that’s how the sensationalism started.

Would you say you speak no English at all?
    I speak English. I can communicate in English well enough, but my spoken English is not all that fluent because I don’t really use it much in daily life. The speculation started when an English media outlet sent me a Facebook message asking for an interview after the rating result. I told him I would prefer to converse via Facebook messenger because it felt more comfortable. After I sent him the answers, he assumed I had used Google Translate and broke the news to the entire world, because he thought I’d avoided talking to him and chose to write instead. My writing is not flawless, but it’s not that bad and it definitely not something that has been through Google Translate. Soon everyone wanted to talk to me and to ask how I had managed to win without knowing any English.

Were you upset?
    I was. Now everyone, including friends at work and people I know, think I know zero English. It’s not that I’m very eloquent, but saying I know no English at all is an exaggeration. I earned a degree in communication arts from Chulalongkorn University and I’ve worked as copywriter for DTAC for four years, which required me to use written English extensively.

Would it be possible to be very good at Scrabble with no knowledge of the language at all?
It would be very, very difficult, but yes, I guess it’s possible. Scrabble is all about memory and strategy. You don’t need to be a great linguist to excel in the game, but knowing the language helps at lot. You can remember one word, but if you know how the language works, you can extend that same word to make several others. For example, make it into an adjective or an adverb and know if it’s correct or not to put “ing” behind it. It’s like some words take an “s” for the plural while others take “es” so it’s important to know those two. These are tricks that can complement your memorisation skills and expand your vocabulary vault without having to remember every single word at random.

How do you train? One feature said you read the dictionary for six hours every day.
    I don’t have six hours to read a dictionary every day [laughs]. I have to work like everyone else! Nobody reads a dictionary to play Scrabble – it’s a waste of time. I use computer software like Lexpert, Collins Zyzzyva and several others to suggest frequently used words in Scrabble. There are two-letter words up to 20-letter words in English, and ones you normally need are between two to eight letters. That’s quite a lot, but it’s still not the whole dictionary. The grid is only 15 by 15, so you don’t really need words that are longer than 15 letters. And like I said, you can always build long words from what you already have.
    Also, I practice with an anagram tool on computer. The software randomly gives me a set of letters and I need to construct as many words as I can from these letters in the shortest time possible. I play Scrabble a lot with computer software and it’s a good way to practise because the computer always wins. You can play online with other players, too. I normally train one hour every day, maybe up to three if I am preparing for a competition.

Do you know the meanings of all the words in your head?
    To be honest, no. There are words that you know the meaning of and others that nobody uses in real life – words that are mentioned mainly in Scrabble games. And I don’t know the meanings of those.

Does training for Scrabble help with your English at all?
    Not directly. You don’t learn the language by knowing just words, but it does help me to be more familiar with the English language and makes it less foreign or scary. It pushes me to learn more about how words are used and what meanings and connotations they have that I may not know. I read a lot of pocket books in English.

It seems you were not a fan of English classes.
    No, not at all. I did okay in school and my grades in English language were okay but I wasn’t top of the English class. I was more into maths, and a bit of a nerd. When I was in Matthayom 1, I was in a game club and did very well at the 24 maths game, where you had to manipulate four numbers to get 24 as the result. Then I moved on to A-math, which was also a math game but with a similar grid layout to Scrabble. I saw the similarity and thought, “why not?” I started playing Scrabble in Matthayom 2 and haven’t stopped.

What it is about Scrabble that appeals to you so much?
    It’s fun! I can’t describe it but it suits me very well. I’m a nerd, I admit it, and I like spending time on my own, doing my own thing. Scrabble is a perfect game for me. Also, the prize money from big competitions is quite attractive – I’m not going to lie. So it’s a win-win hobby for me.

What’s your strength as a Scrabble player?
    I don’t have the biggest word bank in my head, and clearly my English is not excellent. But I am good at balancing every aspect of the game to secure a high score. Scrabble is mainly about strategy, so you have to plan and execute it well within your 25-minute time slot. I don’t just think about how to construct words, but also how to get more points from what I have, how to block the opponent from gaining more points, how to increase my opportunity and so forth. Everything has to go together.

What advice do you have for beginners?
    Start small. Go for two to three letter words first, and then build up. Use the computer software to help you find words that you need to know, or just Google for most found Scrabble words and start from there. And like most things, practise makes perfect.