Top girl

Suanne Ong makes her mark as the first Malaysian to win the World Youth Scrabble Championship.

Penang wunderkind Suanne Ong, 17, was crowned champion at the 4th World Youth Scrabble Championship (WYSC) held in Johor Baru on Dec 8-10. Suanne, the crowd favourite, and widely touted for the third consecutive year to be the champion, finally claimed her dues and stamped her mark as the first female winner of the WYSC.

Held as part of the Iskandar Malaysia World Festival of Scrabble, and hot on the heels of the World Scrabble Championship and the Causeway Challenge, the fourth WYSC returned with a record of 80 competitors from 14 countries.

Kuwait and Qatar sent teams for the first time, but most of the attention was focused on the competitors from the traditional powerhouses of Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

The format was 24 games over three days, and the tournament ran smoothly, withstanding computer crashes, temperamental printers, schedule changes, late-arriving players and even a blackout on Day 3, to finish ahead of schedule each day.

Previous championships featured a best-of-five final, but for 2009 this was removed so all players would get extra games, which seemed to be a popular decision at the start of play, but some were lamenting the loss of a potential barn-burner final between Suanne and Alastair Richards, given that they split two close games during the tournament.

Defending champion Charnrit Khongthanarat from Thailand was seeking to become the first to win the tournament twice, but most eyes were on Suanne – winner of the prestigious King’s Cup in Thailand in 2008 – and Alastair, both experienced competitors who had competed in the inaugural event in Wollongong in 2006.

Both had just one chance remaining to win the title before turning 18 and becoming ineligible. Besides players in their mid-teens, there were players under 10, such as Nicholas Vasquez from the United States playing alongside the strapping Nigerian Oluwafemi Akinlo.

Early leaders included a mix of new faces and improvers; Sri Lanka’s Sheroze Sheriffdeen, Singapore’s Eden Choo and Australia’s Michael McKenna enjoyed stints at table one before Alastair took over the lead on Day 2. The heavy favourites suffered some early losses before racing ahead of the pack on Day 2, leading them to square off twice during the 24 games.

Wong Zhi Yuan from Singapore proved to be the unexpected giant killer, felling both Suanne and Alastair early and impressively recording the tournament’s high game of 589, and Charnrit justified his place among the favourites by notching up victories over both the top two.

Meeting in round 16, Alastair won the first match with Suanne by just one point, holding the win despite a dogged chase from Suanne, ending in a recount, allowing him to go into the final Day 1 game clear.

With repeats allowed once per day, they played again in round 20, with Suanne winning narrowly, putting her on level footing. An unexpected heavy loss for Alastair to his compatriot McKenna allowed Suanne to move a game clear.

Though Suanne had a late loss to Charnrit’s brother, Preedee, Alastair also fell again to Zhi Yuan, meaning she could win the title with even a loss, as long as it was close. A close win in the final round secured the title for Suanne. It was a win three years in the making, and a popular one among her peers – she is both the first Malaysian winner, and the first female to win the title.

Ever the perfectionist, Suanne spent the third day looking over her games for mistakes before playing the next one, showing a level of attention to detail on par with the world’s top adult players, in whose company she has played for several years.

She cited ACYLOIN (a chemical), played with the blank as an N, as one of her best words, helping her recover from an 100-point deficit to defeat her compatriot Ker Jen Ho in game 17.

If Suanne’s win is impressive, Alastair’s second place is too; while the other players are finishing high school, he is already studying tertiary subjects with a view to transfer to a degree in medicine, all the while playing a fearless, aggressive game against the top players in Sydney.

McKenna finished in third, closing his best tournament result yet with two big wins. The Top 10 was rounded out by mostly Thais and Singaporeans, underlining the region’s dominance at the game’s peak. The only Top 10 finisher from outside the Asia-Pacific was sixth placed Oluwaseun Oyeleke from Nigeria.

Aside from taking two of the top three positions, the Australian players impressed – their team had the best average placing, finishing ahead of Thailand, suggesting that even without Alastair next year, they will again field a strong, experienced team.

McKenna, the best placed entrant who is eligible to play next year’s competition, will start as one of the favourites in 2010, and at 15 years of age, has two more chances to improve on the third.

The significance of a Malaysian winner, and a rare female one in a male-dominated competition, was not lost on the players and organisers who gave Suanne a rapturous applause when she went up to receive her prize.

While the players hammed it up on the stage after the ceremony, Suanne greeted the press with exuberance; some of her answers gleefully disseminated Scrabble in-jokes such as claiming she would use her RM5,000 cash prize to buy hats and vests, showing the quick wit that has made her one of the game’s best-known champions.

Fine words played at the event included VIBRISSAE (whiskers, especially resembling a cat’s), MANIHOT (a plant), and SFORZATI (musical direction meaning strongly accented). The overall standard of play was high. 2007 Champion Toh Weibin of Singapore was impressed with the standard based on the published games.

Revelling in the success of the tournament, organiser (and proud mother of second-placed Alastair) Karen Richards announced the 2010 event would be held in Manila. It looks like the players too old to compete next time will be replaced – in greater numbers – by keen newcomers from around the world.

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