The Easter period typically means only one thing when it comes to Scrabble in Australia: all eyes turn to whichever state or territory is hosting the Australian Championships.
For 2018, this meant Canberra (all states and territories with the exception of Northern Territory take turns to host). The last time it was held in Canberra was 2011, the year Chris May won. Chris was back this year, for the first time since 2013.
In fact, there were twelve previous champions who had made their way to Canberra, joining the nearly 140 other players making their way to the nation’s capital for the three day event. This was the largest contingent of former national champions since Sydney in 2014. There was one previous World Champion playing as well - 2011 World Youth Champion Anand Bharadwaj, also being the only player at the event who was in a position of becoming the youngest ever national champion, a record that stands since 2007.
Some players had travelled earlier to be a part of the Warm Up tournament, the first time such an event was held since 2011. One thing’s for sure: as an event, people want to come to it.
Manuka Oval, Canberra
Anand Bharadwaj, 2011 World Youth Champion
So, what is it about an event like this that keeps people coming?
The weather certainly seems to stay favorable - autumn in Australia can be hit or miss but the sun stayed out for most of the Championships, and the views from the venue (Manuka Oval) afforded to players as their games took place made for a splendid sight.
Manuka Oval, as a sports ground, plays host to Australian Rules Football matches in the winter and cricket during the summer. Most sports fans in Oz would recognize it as the traditional venue for the Prime Minister’s XI matches in cricket - and a look at the recent honour board of these matches would suggest whoever has been Prime Minister has not been brilliant with their selections. Opposition teams have been victorious in recent times.
The Tournament Director, John Hamilton, was ably assisted by annotators, members of Scrabble ACT, webmaster Barry Harridge, and John’s brother Phillip, with the event running to its now traditional 8-9-7 game per day format. The Oval is near a restaurant precinct, so players were never short of the chance for quality food during the lunch breaks (which were extended slightly as part of the schedule).
The event, for most players, would run smoothly and roughly to time so that players could retire to their hotels/AirBnB/accommodation if they chose.
Tournament Director John Hamilton
Thank you Barry Harridge
In fact, by game 23, the titles had been determined: Edward Okulicz became the 2018 Australian Champion (becoming a two time winner in the process) after defeating (two time former Champion) Trevor Halsall in that round. In the Plate Division, Don Hadley had been crowned the winner after results in the same round went his way.
At this time, the nerves and anticipation of those first shuffle of tiles on Day 1 for all players now started to give way to a sense of relaxation for most (though there would be determination for others wanting to end on a high).
Throughout all the performances, however, one thing stands out, and it is the reason why people keep coming back for the most part.
The “Nationals” was a chance to meet up - those longer lunch periods allowed players to spend more time talking and catching up with those they had not seen for a year or more. Most would have corresponded online (or more typically have played Scrabble online) whilst taking part in domestic tournaments, and, by the time the Presentation Dinner came along, the Scrabble that took place the previous three days seemed incidental.
The Dinner celebrated achievements, not only from the weekend just gone by but also of the successful organization/holding of the event. Scrabble in Australia keeps players in for a very long time (some for 7000 games and beyond) and keeps its photographic history intact through dedicated players like Khwanjai Thammaping, who take photos between games. It is a community that encourages comebacks.
And is encapsulated in this observation from a player on Facebook afterwards, “Another Scrabble comp over, I got absolutely smashed - worst result ever! Had a great time with great friends, can’t wait for the next one.”
The next Australian Championships will be in Hobart next Easter, hopefully with another bumper attendance.