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WHILE most sports in the country have remained matters that we all hope to do better in, or find ‘our lost glory’ in, there is one sport or game in which the country has already gained supremacy — although very few know of it.

The story of Scrabble in Pakistan is like watching the board game spread out before you. There are the poker-faced players carefully studying their tiles, seven in number, on the letter rack before them. There is the greyish board with little squares outlined, some of them pink, blue or green in colour and labelled as double- or triple-letter, or word score. Starting from the centre a word is created by a player and as he or she calculates the score and reaches for the pouch with more tiles to replace the ones used, the next player joins up another set of tiles to that word to create another as the board gradually fills up.

The Pakistan Scrabble Association (PSA) has come a long way. One person took a step and the rest joined in with their contributions to help it go from strength to strength.

The journey began some 58 years ago from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when the young and newly married 25-year-old Pakistani Ishtiaq Chishty, an employee of the oil company Aramco, received the gift of a Scrabble set from some friends returning from the US. The young man, who was fond of whiling away his leisure hours playing bridge with colleagues, had already been thinking of giving that game up following a terrible row breaking out between some of his friends during a game. That was how Scrabble replaced bridge as a pastime for him.

Proper competitions were started around 1966 in Dhahran after nine friends there formed a playing group. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Scrabble movement in Asia or perhaps even in the entire world had its roots in Dhahran because the game didn’t take off as a proper indoor sport in England until the 1970s.

After Dhahran, the playing group, under the leadership of Chishty, set up a branch in Riyadh followed by another in Jeddah, and so on. The strides he made in spreading and popularising the game earned him the title of the ‘Scrabble patriarch’ abroad and Baba-i-Scrabble in Pakistan later. He also had a cherished handwritten letter from the late Alfred A. Butts, the inventor of Scrabble, appreciating his efforts in promoting the game.

Meanwhile, Chishty’s better half, Malka, was not too happy about his taking up Scrabble because he’d only take her out to visit friends who played the game. While he played, she waited around getting bored. Eventually, when her children had grown out of the toddler age, she too joined her Scrabble-playing husband and his friends.

Today, she is a world record-holder for putting together the longest word — ‘computerization’— that anyone can ever make in the game. It takes a chance in a million to have the right alphabet tiles and the mind to put down such a word. Malka already had the word ‘recover’ laid down there on the board by someone else and she came up with ‘computer’, adding the ‘ization’ later.

Pakistan had a small Scrabble society by then, again thanks to the couple’s regular visits. But the credit of the formation of the PSA actually goes to Goshpi Avari. She had the idea for it after witnessing a Scrabble competition at the US embassy in Karachi in 1988. The PSA was formed the following year with her support. It was Avari who opened the doors of the Beach Luxury Hotel for the Scrabble Association members to meet up and play every week, free of charge.

In 1994, Chishty retired from Aramco and he returned to Pakistan to offer his services to the game here. He also served as the vice president and secretary of the PSA. He passed away in 2011. But it was in his lifetime that after setting several records at the local and international levels and winning many tournaments, senior players decided to focus on the grass-roots’ level by bringing in and grooming fresh talent. Without any support from the government, they started a very successful talent hunt programme by initiating annual inter-school championships. Winners in these championships are groomed the year round to take part in international events.

This sapling planted by the PSA is now growing into a tree. Going to compete for the first time at the World Youth Scrabble Championship in 2010 in the Philippines, Pakistan finished eighth. The next year’s event was held in Malaysia, where they were fifth. In 2012 they finished third and in 2013, at the same event held in Dubai, they finished at the top with the then 16-year-old Moiz Ullah Baig bagging the title of world champion and teammate Javeria Mirza taking the runners-up position. With minor ups and downs, the junior players of Pakistan have mostly remained at the top since then.

The team returned triumphant again recently from England, with Baig being crowned the junior world Scrabble champion of 2018.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2018

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