Alchemist Cup 2018 – A Travelogue & Personal Reflection

One of the most eagerly anticipated events in the 2018 tournament calendar – the Alchemist Cup – was held in Penang, Malaysia, from 5 to 9 Dec 2018. The invitational team event featured 10 teams of 5 players, competing in a 45-game round-robin (i.e. each player gets to play every other player from opposing teams once) for a grand team prize of USD 10,000. The invitational format mimicked the past Causeway team events but was a class better than previous events, with extensive preparations made to provide a quality showcase to the world.

Singapore, being one of the top 10 Scrabble countries*, was invited to field a team. I was fortunate to qualify as a representative. What follows below is a travelogue and personal reflection. I’ve also thought about contributing something to SA News – for that, I will share a trimmed version with the reflective bits left out.

*There are no officially recognised rankings on this, although John Hamilton’s calculations ranked us 6th.

The travel

 

 

I’ve been to Penang a couple of times before, but never really got the chance to explore it in my own terms – i.e. getting a feel of the geography of the place and knowing where things were and where I was going. I was also eager to try out something new! So I decided to take a long(ish) walk in the Penang National Park (preceded by a hourlong bus ride from Georgetown). The Huffington Post and Time Out Magazine claim that the national park is the smallest in the world, but perhaps incorrectly – Moyenne Island National Park, located off the coast of the Seychelles, is only 22 acres large. No such bragging rights then!

As the path to the Monkey Beach and lighthouse were closed, I took the path towards the Turtle Beach, and what is known as a meromictic* lake. The lake was unfortunately dried up at this time of the year but I enjoyed the sights and experience.

I’d also planned to visit the Botanic Gardens for a morning run during the tournament, but simply did not have the discipline to do so, all the more with games starting at 8 or 8.30 am each day and ending past sundown. This is on my list the next time I’m in Penang!

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And some more assorted pictures. This is what would seem to be standard fare for the tourist – Penang prawn mee at the Old Green House, jazzed up with porcine embellishments… it sure took a long time to walk it off!

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Fortunately, I didn’t have to stomach all the food myself – Jesse Day of the US came the next evening and we shared this rather nourishing bowl of kuay chap, before proceeding to explore the street food at Kimberley and Chulia Streets.

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And very soon we had an army of Scrabbly foodies descending upon Penang! Just a day before the tournament (before we had our head over our pieces which Murray Head warned could make “one town very like another”), Austin Shin (UK), Jesse Matthews (Canada), Lakshan Wanniarachchi (Sri Lanka), Jesse Day (USA) and I arranged to meet for lunch at the famous Nasi Kandar Line Clear. Ricky Purnomo joined us entirely by chance, in his food crawl from the airport up to Gurney Drive.

The origins of the name “Nasi Kandar Line Clear” were debated at lunch, and Jesse D., having seen an outlet bearing the same name near the airport, hypothesised that it was a reference to the queues at the airport! Probably incorrectly, since we were at the original branch in an alleyway at Jalan Penang.

I was impressed with the variety of food available but decided to play it relatively safe with my choices with the tournament starting soon. Some of us made the mistake of going for the expensive prawns, which cai fan aficionados would instinctively avoid! [Picture source: Lakshan’s Facebook]

Above are the picture highlights from some time spent around Georgetown on foot with the Scrabble bunch. One of the surprising highlights came at the end of the walk – we took a pit stop at a Harriston Chocolate outlet on our taxi ride to the tournament venue, to allow our taxi driver to have some of the chocolate tasters while we visited!

The tournament

On to the tournament, which was held at the chic G Hotel, Gurney. The pictures in this mosaic were taken by the official photographers:

The tournament had one of the strongest fields ever – with 14 of the top 20 players in the world in attendance (including #1 Ganesh Asirvatham and #2 Nigel Richards), and about a fifth of the players being former world champions/runners-up. While the Singaporean team of Hubert Wee, Jeremy Khoo, Ricky Purnomo, Marlon Prudencio and I didn’t have as many Scrabble accolades to our names, I thought that our team had the potential to spring a few surprises, especially if luck was in our favour. And we did – beating the top-rated team Nigeria in 3 out of 5 rounds, 2nd-rated team USA in 2/5 and the 4th-rated team New Zealand in 3/5.

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Of the games, I only photographed my favourite losses. This one was Game 22 against Jakkrit, the most exciting one of the lot. It went off to a jittery start with Jakkrit hitting TETANOI(D) and (O)VERSPIN consecutively. I drew close with 4-timer M(E)CHOUI (glad to refresh this word before the tournament!) and PA(L)TERER, before taking a small lead with the disconnected-9 S(T)RO(L)LING.

I went into the pre-endgame with the upper hand following BaLDIES(T) to take a 60-ish point lead, but still felt insecure since the move blasted the top left quadrant of the board open and gave opportunities for a bingo comeback from the floating B or A of BALDIEST, or R and I of HOURI. My fears were warranted – I picked AGHTVWW, and with an unseen pool of AEFNORRTY, Jakkrit dropped the R making R(UG) as a fish. This left one in the bag and forced me to work out the possible bingo options for Jakkrit.

I saw RENOT(I)FY and (B)AYFRONT as possibilities and agonised for a long time, before deciding to play W(I)GHT on the right, thinking it more likely for Jakkrit to hold the E. I also thought it possible that he had a bingo that I’d missed through the R, but couldn’t see one at the time (he didn’t).

Jakkrit smiled after I hit the clock and gestured for me to pick out the last tile. I knew at that moment that the game was lost! Apparently, he had had a rack of AFNRRTY, and with R(UG) had a 1/9 chance of picking the O. Brilliant! Also, I’d made a mistake with W(I)GHT, as (B)ARYTONE from the B was also possible – which meant that it would have had been safer to block the B. Still, a beautiful finish to the game with a lovely low-probability word, coincidentally the name of an MRT station on the Downtown Line.

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Game 38 against Edgar Odongkara of Uganda – this was one of the most hilarious losses I’ve ever had. I’d built up a lead with consecutive plays of tAENIAS 72, BUAZE 79, ORIB(A)TId 63 and JEAN 57, although it did seem somewhat tenuous with Edgar’s HANTLES 78, YEX 61 and KETOL 55. With my string of scoring plays, Edgar looked slightly disgruntled throughout the whole game and even appeared to doze off a couple of times (but was nevertheless waking up from time to time and playing relatively quickly).

I eventually surged ahead mid-game with UREDI(N)ES to go up by 122 points. While there were still two nine-timer lanes open, Edgar closed one off with the feeblish CL(O)D for 14 points. I was confident that the game would be settled after I blocked off the other nine-timer lane with (P)OGO. Especially with all four esses and both blanks out!

Edgar’s next play showed how wrong I was – with (J)ARGONED for 90, a rather improbable bingo from the J that blasted the right half of the board open. My uninspiring pick of EGHMTVV strongly suggested a play of V(E)HM to restrict a few lanes, while giving me some opportunities to hook VEHME later to the triple. Anyway, with an unseen pool of AACEEEFIIILNPQRRTW, it didn’t seem likely that there was much opportunity for him to bingo again, at least not immediately?

Bang – Edgar’s next play was the double-double REFIRIN(G) for 98! I pulled out the Q with my three-tile pickup, and with just one in the bag after Edgar’s move, it started to dawn on me that I’d just lost a 130-point lead in two moves. After taking some time to process this, I made eye contact with Edgar and our giggles turned into laughter (quickly shushed in an Extremely Serious Tournament, heh). What a terrific ending to the game – and what an unpredictable game we play.

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Here’s the Singapore Scrabble contingent at the Alchemist Cup (missing Kumar, who must have been packing up his streaming equipment). At the centre of it all is Maestro Michael Tang, organiser and tournament director – kudos to him for organising such an exciting event. Apart from Michael and our team of five, Goutham represented the Rest of Asia team and Marc volunteered to annotate; the others joined the side tournament, with Cheah clinching top honours and Jian Rong coming in 3rd.

I like the range of emotions in the picture – you can almost read into their performance and/or outlook on life! Hubert really did have cause to smile, in my opinion – his game-winning play of (PI)GEONITE (a pre-endgame setup, no less) was widely regarded as the best play of the tournament, based on the results of a Facebook poll, which must be authoritative. [Picture source: Official photographer]

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The victorious Australian team, which also triumphed a decade ago at Causeway 2006 and 2008. I’m truly happy for this bunch (even if they beat me 4-1, ouch) – they went through tribulation after tribulation to get the dream team back together for this event, with a few near no-shows in the moments before the tournament. They probably weren’t the favourites to win from the start based on ratings and recent performances, and were looking fragile mid-tournament, but pulled together remarkably in the last few days to snatch the victory from an otherwise dominant Team USA. As they say, form is temporary, class is permanent. [Picture source: Official photographer]

My preparation, play and performance – a reflection

Onto some reflection which I’ve put off for quite some time after the tournament.

It’s probably not right for me to blame the Alchemist Cup or anyone for this, but I have had a love-hate relationship with Scrabble for some time already, and it would only be fair to say this upfront and situate my thoughts within this context.

I have to admit that my attitude was less than ideal for the tournament. While I definitely relished the opportunity to represent Singapore for the first time in the team event and face such a difficult field, I wasn’t really looking forward to playing 45 games again, not least because of the burnout I felt at the end of 45 games at Causeway 2016.

I might also have been slightly overconfident in my abilities, having held onto the top spot in Singapore for some time (above other very capable players) despite minimal “maintenance” work. It’s partially related to where I see myself in the game too – I think I no longer have a strong drive to improve, since I don’t see commitment (that is, without sacrificing the ones I have currently) necessarily translating into further results at this stage. I’m pretty satisfied floating along with what I know.

I think my attitude affected my preparation and play in three ways:

  • I fell far short of what I wanted to accomplish in terms of word study, mostly because I didn’t plan what I wanted to cover well enough and procrastinated. That said, I did put in some effort to prepare for it in the weeks before the tournament (managing to cover all the CSW15 2-8L words) and was able to pace myself fairly consistently.
  • I found my play wanting – not wholly unsatisfactory as I did have some good games, but quite a bit more inconsistent than my usual play. I averaged almost one phony every 4 games and a bingo miss every 3 games – way too frequent at this level.
  • I wasn’t psychologically prepared for annotation and played too aggressively – playing MORTIZES* against Moiz which I would probably have turned down if I’d taken more time, and DEAMORTIZES* and ANTHODIAS* against Moiz and Wiegand respectively, which were just overconfident.

What’s in the future for me and Scrabble?

I’ve been cutting down the number of tournament games played – from about 215-220 games a year from 2015-2016 to about 160-170 games a year in the last two years. I’ve also been practising less. Several factors are probably at work – an increasing commitment at and to work, a reluctance to do long-distance epicurean travel these days (farthest I’ve been is to Bangalore since coming back from the US), and a reluctance to do short Scrabble-exclusive trips – i.e. I’d like to extend trips and look around if possible, and even do some travel that completely doesn’t involve Scrabble.

I still enjoy the game, as I discovered at the recent Jurong Green Open – the intellectual & sometimes emotional challenge in finding the best play in a given situation, and the adrenaline rush that I get from making a good play or playing a close game. I still start each and every tournament game with eager anticipation – they are all different, even if they all start from a zero-zero scoreline. And I am still grateful to the game for bringing me as far as it did, and for allowing me the opportunity to meet beautiful people and places.

That said, I do want to invest a bit more time on other things this year, like learning something new, volunteering, keeping fit and reading more books (I’m a bit lost/overwhelmed on the first two objectives, but am on track for the latter two). I think my Scrabble efforts can be better directed too – perhaps in developing the potential of the younger players in Singapore. It’s something that’s on my mind for some time, but it’s hard to put it into action.

I’ll end this by saying that this love-hate relationship will likely continue for some time.

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