• Grasp of words and skills is more important than proficiency in the language, he says
• Try your luck and if you thrive, go for tournaments, though it is more a labour of love
Scrabble Kenya chairman Benard Amuke stumbled into the game after a friend brought a board to his high school in Busia. Twenty-five years later, he is among the top 10 players in Kenya, with a peak rating of 1830 in the World English-Language Scrabble Players' Association.
But funny enough, Amuke sees scrabble as a science, not a language test. The 44-year-old says it helps with numerical skills from calculating potential scores, and with critical thinking that can get you out of a tight situation.
“You don’t have to be good at English. Even dropouts play scrabble. What matters is your ability to cram words and understand them,” the soft-spoken father of two says. “The best players are engineers. English teachers struggle because you have to learn words apart from English.”
You also need to know how to play defensively and how to navigate the endgame. A good player can be trailing but beat you with his last move, he says, recalling games with his greatest rivals Allan Oyende, Nderitu Gitonga and Bernard Koyyoko.
Amuke urges promising players to join scrabble clubs. “We all started by playing for leisure. When you feel you can beat other people, you go professional,” he says. Members pay Sh500 a month. One can climb their way up from the Open division, Intermediate to Premier level.
Amuke can play the game from Friday evening after work to Sunday evening. He even drives around with a board in his car, just in case he travels somewhere and finds a player who is interested. “It is very addictive.”
However, most pros are driven by passion, not profit. “It’s a side hustle. It won’t help you pay the bills.”
He cites the case of Wellington Jighere in Nigeria, the number-one country in Africa in scrabble. Jighere had little to show for nearly 20 years of winning national and international championships.
Heavy “taxation” (cuts) by organisers and non-payment of prize money, including a Sh500,000 paycheque still pending after 10 years, drove him to quit this year.
Amuke himself juggles scrabble with civil engineering. Locally, the best one can earn is Sh15,000 (Premier division). This improves regionally (East, Central and Southern Africa championships) to Sh120,000, the holy grail for top players in Kenya. Top threes also get trophies.
The scrabble chairman urges the government to support players to take part in international competitions, which are their greatest motivation. “When you qualify and you can’t go because of lack of funds, it is quite demoralising,” he says.
Corporates should come on board as lack of resources is the sport’s biggest hurdle. “The simplest board in a supermarket is Sh4,000,” he says. “It seems like a game for rich people.” Administratively, Scrabble Kenya hosted the World Scrabble Championship in 2017 but had to pay the winner the Sh2 million cash prize in instalments for lack of sponsorship.
It does not help that the media sees scrabble as a passive game. “They like promoting the big games, like football. In our local or national tournaments, it is hard to get coverage.”
These problems notwithstanding, participants in tournaments have gone up from 40-50 in the old days to 140-180 nowadays. More companies are including scrabble in their competitions, for instance, interbank games. And Kenya is second to none on the continent in youth championships (under 17s), with the youngest representative being eight years old.
The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions disrupted the sport this year, leaving players at risk of regressing for lack of practice. “Uganda could overtake us,” Amuke says. Virtual games have tried to bridge the gap, but the best players distrust them. “You can’t know if your opponent is checking words before he plays.”
Going digital, though, also helps the game appeal to the youth, who have other mobile and video games competing for their attention.
All in all, Amuke is optimistic about the future. And he encourages people to play scrabble, even if not professionally. “It jogs your mind. And it is dynamic,” he says. “People who have moved from chess to scrabble have told me in chess, you need to learn patterns. In three moves, someone can win a game. In scrabble, you will never get the same tiles twice. And even a good player can get bad tiles, which gives you a chance.”
Amuke’s children are still too young to understand the game — a month-old daughter and a five-year-old son. “But the boy likes playing with the board,” the family man says with pride. Like father like son? Time will tell.