By Javier Castro Bugarin
Buenos Aires, Oct 28 (EFE).- Benjamin Olaizola’s friendly nature disappears when he plays competitive Scrabble.
Armed with a stoic demeanor and a fixed gaze, his hand covering his mouth to conceal his emotions, he engages in a battle of wills in which the first to lose his or her composure is mercilessly defeated.
“You have to have a handle on your emotions and not make rush decisions,” the Venezuelan two-time winner (2001 and 2007) told Efe at a Buenos Aires hotel that is the venue for the 24th Spanish World Scrabble Championship, an annual event that is being held once again after a two-year, pandemic-triggered hiatus.
Over the next few days, more than 120 players from 17 Spanish-speaking countries will compete for the title of Spanish-language world champion in Scrabble, a two-to-four-person word game in which players score points by placing single-letter tiles onto a square game board.
The winner will need a mix of strategy, knowledge and luck to prevail over the world’s best.
Inside the competition halls, the silence is interrupted only by the sound of tiles clinking in their bags.
But when a game board is not between them and there is time to chat outside the competition venue, the rivals enjoy catching up with people they haven’t seen in some cases for three years.
“We’re calling this the reunion Worlds. It’s been nearly three years since we played. The last time was the Worlds in Panama City in 2019, and then the pandemic kept us apart,” the president of the Argentine Scrabble Association, Adrian Balajovsky, told Efe.
Among those in the running for the $3,000 cash prize is Spaniard Antonio Alvarez, winner of the 2005 edition held in the eastern Spanish city of L’Alfas del Pi.
“It’s really tough because you need a little luck when grabbing the letters, but, yes, I feel like I’m in form,” he told Efe.
“The level is very high here, and any Argentine player can crush you,” said Alvarez, who has used the Scrabble tournament as an excuse to embark with his wife on a multi-country tour of Latin America.
All of the players follow a similar routine in preparation for the tournament, practicing every day, creating lists of words (with a special focus on short ones of two or three letters) and training the mind for a battle in which the line between victory and defeat is paper thin.
Olaizola, who became the youngest-ever winner of this competition in 2007 at age 22, stressed the importance of rattling the nerves of your opponent, adding in that regard that experience has been his best teacher.
“I always take my time before any decision, as tempting as it might be, to evaluate other options. I sometimes also check … to see how sure my opponent is of the word they put down,” Olaizola said of his strategies.
For a first-time competitor like Chile’s Raul Cañas, being in the Spanish World Scrabble Championship is the closest thing to taking part in a tennis tournament with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal all in the draw.
He added that he has some words up his sleeve that would yield a big score and which he hopes to play if the opportunity presents itself.
Inspiring stories abound among the rivals at this championship in Buenos Aires.
Rogelio Rivas, for example, won Argentina’s national Scrabble championship in 2009 and 2016 despite having suffered a brain aneurysm in the early 1990s that impaired his short-term memory.
Unable to read or watch television or even maintain friendships, crossword puzzles and later Scrabble served as his only lifeline.