Each month, in the Spotlight On column in the NASPA News, Mike Willis provides a broader biography of notable Scrabble players. This profile of César Del Solar first appeared in the March 11, 2021, issue.

 

Watching a Son Shine

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, my company of employment, DuPont, had a significant business relationship with mineral-rich Venezuela. In the mid 80s, the price of oil fell, and a horrible spiral took place in the country with inflation reaching 84% in 1989, and even 100% in 1996. We had a lot of friends there, and what the country dealt with was horrible.

Our friend, César Del Solar, was born right in the middle of this turmoil and recounts a story which is fascinating to hear from his perspective: “I was born and raised in Caracas (Venezuela) to Peruvian parents, on April 3, 1984. My parents (José Del Solar and María Laguna – later Del Solar as well) had moved there from Peru in order to seek better opportunities.

“Venezuela was kind of the USA of South America in the 1970s and 1980s, the richest country in South America, so it had a healthy influx of immigrants at the time. As they were not college graduates, they often had to do odd jobs to get by.”

At a very young age he moved to the United States: “When I was very young, they used to travel back between the US and Venezuela as the only jobs they could find were in the US (where they had applied for residency and obtained it prior to my birth). So I stayed behind with my aunts and grandma in Venezuela for months at a time. At some point we moved to the US when I was around 2, and my sister was born in Queens (NY) when I was 3 1/2.”

But his father’s concern for his brother convinced the family to return to Venezuela again: “My brother is a bit over 10 years older than I, so when I was 5 or so, my parents did not want him to be alone in Venezuela as he was ready to start college. My dad sent us back there – my mom, my sister, and me. My dad ended up getting a somewhat stable job as a house painter so he didn’t want to leave again; it was harder for him to find a job in Venezuela.

“I was a few months into kindergarten in a school in the Bronx at the time. My parents always emphasized the importance of education as they didn’t want us to do what they were doing – traveling back and forth, holding odd jobs, etc. My dad came with us to Venezuela for the first few months and he insisted on me going straight into third grade at the age of 6! The school – a Catholic school in the Chacao district of Caracas – was hesitant, but they tested me and determined that I was ready for it.

He explained how data programming began to influence his life: “I went to 3rd through 5th grade in Venezuela – from ages 6 through 8 (turning 9 towards the end of the school year). I think that at some point my dad found it intolerable to have the rest of his family so far away – he would visit every few months when he could, but we would only see him for a few days at a time if I remember.

“One of my happiest memories is my dad showing up around Christmas when I was 6 years old in Venezuela and bringing me a NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) console – I played Mario 1 and Duck Hunt to death. My aunts bought me Mario 3 a year or two later. I was fascinated by video games and how they worked.

“Since my brother was at college, he had an early programmable calculator – I remember it being a Casio of some type with only around 450 bytes or so of program memory. He didn’t quite know how the programming function worked, but he let me play with it. I was soon writing incredibly basic programs – I remember writing a program that prompted the user for a random number between 1 and 100 and then told the user the actual number that the calculator was ‘thinking’ of. However, I couldn’t figure out how to make it actually do something with the user’s guess – for example, telling the user the number was too high or too low.

“It was in fiddling with the calculator – with no Internet and without a user manual, I was just messing around with it using trial and error – that I discovered there was a key that looked like =>, which I eventually figured out was essentially an IF -> THEN statement. It was like a whole world opened to me – I then made my program interactive and wrote programs to draw graphs and pictures on the screen, etc. My brother was very mad at me one day because I used up all of his calculator battery for a big test. From then on though, I knew I was hooked on programming, but I could only do it on the calculator.”

Later they returned to the USA again: “Around the age of 8, my dad tasked my brother with teaching me English. My brother has always had an aptitude for languages – he’s always doing around 6 languages on Duolingo nowadays – and he had taken English in high school. I remember being very resistant – I didn’t want to learn and said I was Venezuelan and we don’t speak English here, etc. My dad was planning to move us to the US. Long story short, we ended up moving to Houston (TX) after driving there from Tampa (where my dad was originally trying to settle down before realizing the job situation was dire).

“We were in Houston for about a month during the summer of 1993, and when my dad tried to matriculate me in school, they wanted me to do 5th grade all over again. He refused, and combined with not being able to find a good job in Houston either, we packed up a Ryder truck and made the drive back to the Bronx, where my dad would get his old painter job back. It was a hard time for our family; we were poor and lived in a sketchy neighborhood in the Bronx in a one-bedroom apartment. I remember it was always loud outside and I slept on a bed next to our stove. My brother was back in Venezuela in college, and my dad was house painting, while my mom did sweatshop-style work at a jewelry factory.

“I was put into a Catholic school for 6th grade – my parents were afraid of sending me to public school partially because I was 2 years younger than everyone. I did well in school and started making friends. I never really experienced any bullying – my personality was always that of a bit of a class clown so I would make people laugh and a few friends ‘got my back’ if anyone tried to mess with me.

“My dad’s goal was for me to go to Stuyvesant High School – he had heard this was the best school in the city, and it was free, so he would save whatever money he got to get me prep books. He would also take me and my sister to the library after work very frequently. He tells me now that he used to come home so tired from his job, but he had to make sure we kept learning. I would check out stacks of books at a time, mostly on dinosaurs and space (my biggest interests). Around this time the NYC Public Library system started getting computers and the Internet. I would surf the web there, fascinated, and even made my own Angelfire homepage, learning basic HTML.”

César’s dad knew of his son’s potential and carefully tended to his education as best he could: “I wanted to go to Bronx High School of Science, since that was nearby, but my dad was always very focused on my education and said I should go to the better school. I ended up getting into Stuy – my Catholic school said I was the only student they’d ever had get into that school – and got a good quality science/math education there. It was also at Stuy that I got exposed to fully functioning computers in a computer lab. I remember staying late after school – trying to make video games in QBASIC – and the older kids teaching me how to write functions, etc.

“Stuyvesant was a good time and I did well enough to get into Caltech, which was, at the year that I applied, the number 1 college in the country according to US News & World Report. I remember after getting in, I dropped a bunch of classes during the second half of my senior year, ready to enjoy my year a bit more. When my dad found out, he was livid and made me re-add them, so I had a full schedule my final term as well. I thank him now as Caltech was the first time that I realized that I was not nearly as smart as I thought I was – the school really is quite brutal, academically. I decided at this time that even though I loved computers and programming, that I wanted to study electrical engineering, as I did not want to program all day long.”

School, hobbies, and love of programming led César to our word realm: “Caltech hit me like a shockwave. Suddenly, I was close to failing several classes, and because I got in with a full scholarship (mostly need-based, but the NY Times also gave me a scholarship), I had to keep a 3.0 GPA or I would lose it. It was a struggle to do well, and it took me at least a year to get the hang of it. During that first year I felt kind of low, as I was away from everyone, in a strange state (I was used to the east coast and wanted to go to Columbia, but they did not give me a full scholarship), and school was so difficult. Also, being two years younger than everyone was not psychologically good.

“I used to play a lot of Hearts online on Yahoo! and one time tried out Literati on a whim. I was immediately and hopelessly hooked. I spent most of freshman and sophomore year of college either studying or playing endless blitz Literati games, learning all of the 2 and 3 letter words by, essentially, osmosis. I remember no one there was really a Scrabbler, but people would trade and teach each other weird words (KOMONDOR, EREMURI, AUROREAN, DYSPNOEA). These words would stick and when we got to play them we felt like kings.

“It was there that I met James Leong, Gabriel Wong, Jesse Matthews, and a few other now-Scrabblers, as well as a large number of others who never joined the game but still played at a great level. Once I started getting the hang of college, I also found the ISC (James got me to try it), and I ended up graduating with an acceptable GPA. I credit Literati and the friends I met there for keeping me largely sane during college. I ended up staying and living around LA for many years after college.”

Now, he began to find our community that most of us are familiar with: “James Leong had been suggesting that I should play in-person Scrabble. I was unaware that this was a thing, and he found me a tournament in West LA – a one-day in October of 2005. I emailed Bruce D’Ambrosio, and he suggested I come to club the day before to get used to the clock and playing live games. I remember my first day pretty clearly – thinking I was good at Scrabble, I told him I play on ISC so he didn’t need to put me in the bottom division (of his club or tournament). He disagreed and put me in the bottom division, where I proceeded to go 2-2 that day at club.

“However, this helped me, because when I came back the next day, I went 7-0 in Division 9 (back when even one-day tournaments were huge). My initial rating was around 1150. I went up 200 or so more points in Div 3 at a huge tournament in Las Vegas in November 2005, with over 200 people; I briefly met Austin Shin, who was visiting from England and did well in Div 2. I used my first big prize money to buy myself a nice board and clock.”

 

At the 2006 US SCRABBLE Open, Steve Pellinen and Scott Smith finish up annotating a game between Marty Gabriel and Joey Mallick. César Del Solar and David Mallick look on. Photo Credit: NASPA / Sherrie Saint John.

It is wonderful when work, love, and Scrabble, can all intertwine in some of our lives: “My career and family life have been great. I worked as an Electrical Engineer at a small aeronautics company in Torrance (CA) until a friend of mine from Caltech convinced me to join his startup in the Bay Area. I decided to take the plunge although the job was much less secure and in a different field (web programming) that I knew nothing about. I worked hard at this startup, Leftronic – we even ran out of money for a few months and paid ourselves minimum or less wage. Eventually, a larger company took interest in what we were doing and acquired us, allowing me to have a comfortable salary and not have to work all day and night.

“In 2017 I started dating Mina Le, a fellow Scrabbler whom I had met in 2013 briefly with other Scrabble friends. We both quit our jobs to move to the east coast, which allowed us to be closer to each other and closer to my family as well. Our wedding in 2019 was a definite highlight😀

Mina and César’s wedding (cake) was topped off by a Scrabble board where the words LIFE LONG LOVE were played. Photo Credit: David Whitley.

“I took a job at a phone call authentication startup in early 2018 in NYC; my good friend and fellow Scrabbler (and groomsman) Jesse Day was working there and got me an interview. The job has been challenging and intellectually stimulating, I am still doing programming, but also am the lead of our data team and have learned a ton about machine learning and data engineering.

“My family is doing well; I helped them purchase a house in Pearl River (NY) where my parents live with my great uncle on one floor, and my sister and her husband and two kids on the second floor. My brother is still living in NYC with his own two kids. Because of the pandemic we sadly haven’t been able to see each other as much as we want to, but that will hopefully be over this year at some point.”

César explains some of his contribution to our game: “In 2006 or so as I wanted to keep improving at SCRABBLE, I became interested in writing a study program. I wrote the first version of Aerolith and released it around the time of the 2007 Players Championship in Dayton (OH); it was a downloadable app. It has been pretty popular, people have liked it, and it always warms my heart when someone tells me at a tournament how they use my site! In 2011 I rewrote it to be a web application; it was getting very difficult to update it as a downloadable computer app and making it a web app would make it a lot more flexible. In both cases, a lot of my impetus was to teach myself something new about programming. I’d never written a client-server app before, or a web app, and since I was about to start my new job at a web application startup, I thought it would be essential for me to learn. Indeed I ended up using many of the same technologies I used at Leftronic.

 

“When the pandemic started, I realized it was important to have a modern way to play word games online. ISC was great but it has had no updates for at least 20 years! The site looks and acts visually the same as it did when I first played, and having played enough real-life tournaments and clubs, I knew that we needed something more modern to help our game grow. I discovered lichess.org in 2015 and was so amazed by it that I wrote the programmer an email, telling him this is one of the best things I’d ever seen, and amazed that it was a one-man project. Since then I’d been wanting to write something similar for SCRABBLE and started on something in earnest in 2017.

“In parallel, I was working on a new AI (Artificial Intelligence) for SCRABBLE (Macondo) – also as a way to teach myself the Go programming language. My computer couldn’t even run the ISC Wordbiz app anymore, and I thought we really needed something modern and functional, with a built-in AI, tournaments, learning modes, puzzles, etc. I had a big vision for this app. However, I became quickly discouraged when ISC announced they were releasing a browser version of the app. Sometimes it’s easy for me to get discouraged from working on a large project, and this was a mistake – I wish I’d kept working on it! However, I continued working on the Macondo project and eventually enlisted Jesse Day to help me. We met every so often and hacked together on different ideas; we wanted to start by replicating what Quackle did and then add machine learning to it.

“In 2020 I finally released a very early ‘pre-alpha’ version of Macondo. It wasn’t (and still is not) as good as Quackle yet, but what I released was a research-friendly platform. Indeed a few people have already used it to run millions of games against itself and come up with interesting insights about letter values, score distributions, etc. Jesse and I used this heavily to come up with some leave values that actually slightly outperform Quackle’s. (This simple AI is actually the basis for our HastyBot in Woogles – still a very formidable opponent!).

“It was around this time that we wanted to put a GUI (Graphical User Interface) to it and make it more user friendly. My friend Conrad Bassett-Bouchard messaged me, interested in working on the front-end design, and the three of us had a meeting where we realized that what we actually wanted was to make a platform for playing online, and not just a GUI for an artificial intelligence.

“So we put the Macondo project on the backburner and essentially founded the Woogles.io team in early May of 2020. After just 5 months, we were able to raise over $25K on Kickstarter and are now hosting hundreds of daily active users! We added 4 more people to the team – an amazing front-end programmer and designer (Brianna McKissen), an awesome back-end coder (Josh Castellano), and two awesome people on the community / social side of things (Doug Brockmeier and Will Anderson). All of us are Scrabblers and are all in on bringing a great, modern platform where we can play word games online, even after the pandemic is over.”

He frames his performance to accept the good and the bad in realistic terms: “I take SCRABBLE very seriously, in an often slightly detrimental way. I get upset when I play badly, and as this game is so difficult to master, it is still quite often that I make game-losing errors. Spending so much of my free time on developing tools instead of studying has not helped me improve at the game, but this is a tradeoff that I have chosen to make, and as such, I have learned to live with not being one of the elite players. I still have had a few highlights: although I have never cashed at a Nationals, I finished one out of the cash twice (in 2019 and 2017), have hit a peak rating of 2033 in the year 2016, and have been awarded the title SCRABBLE Master.

“I have also won a few prestigious tournaments: The California Open in 2015, Shediac (NB) in 2017 (one of the biggest ever money tournaments in SCRABBLE outside of the NASC!), NYC Memorial Day and Lake George (NY) in 2019, and a few other smaller tourneys. Best of all though, if it wasn’t for this game, I wouldn’t have met my amazing wife – that’s way better than any SCRABBLE performance😀

César accepts congratulation from Lake George directors Kieran O’Connor and Josh Greenway in 2019.

For the future of the game, he expresses these aspirations: “I have a vision for this game that involves bringing it to as much prominence as chess. I want to build the premier experience for playing online and hope to host more prestigious tournaments on our platform, such as the Virtual Crescent City Cup in January. A few members have pioneered several great anti-cheating technologies involving cameras and full-screen recording. We recently deployed our own anti-cheating technology, using computer analysis of large numbers of games, and will expand and improve upon it over the next year.

“I also want to build a community around the game based on more modern tools such as Twitch and Discord. Our Discord channel already has several hundred users, and they share positions, tips, puzzles, and contribute a ton to our Woogles platform in terms of code and data analysis. We hope to continue this. Will’s Twitch streams have hit over 200 concurrent viewers multiple times; we want to increase this by at least an order of magnitude, and eventually get many more people to try the real-life game in person once the pandemic is over.

“Even without a pandemic, I would love for people to continue to play on Woogles and continue to host worldwide tournaments. I really enjoyed a few tournaments this year where I got to play people from all over the world; this is difficult and costly to do in person, particularly for people in developing countries. It is our dream that the next world champion learns how to play on Woogles.”

César, your life is one of achievement, and a shining example of a family’s love and dedication to overcome hurdles to achieve excellence by reaching potential. You have used your skills to enhance and develop our game in so many ways, and the champions of tomorrow are truly part of your handiwork and efforts. We are really indebted to what you have brought to the advancement of our game, and history will no doubt herald you for taking us to a quantum leap shift forward based on your contributions.

Thank you, and keep the good work coming!

 

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