TODAY is the twenty-first of the month. 21 is the number of perfection, the product of the sacred numbers 3 and 7.

It is also: The number of guns needed to salute a President.

The length of the 21 Years' War, between Russian and Sweden, from 1701-1721.

The optimal hand in the card game pontoon, or vingt- et-un. (Some sources declare the word 'pontoon' to be a corruption of vingt-un.) The total number of pips on a single die.

The number of times the word 'abattoirs' appeared in the Independent in 1993.

WORD GAME: Dreamy, dream, dram, dam, am, a. Each word in the chain is formed by deleting a single letter from its predecessor. We have three copies of Chambers Encyclopedic English Dictionary (200,000 reference points, 5,000 concise biographies, normal price pounds 30) as prizes for the readers who can produce the best such word- chains ending with a single- letter.

Preference will be given to words in common usage. Entries, to arrive by 27 October, to: Pastimes, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

Last week's answers: 1 Partridge in a Pear Tree; 12 Labours of Hercules; 14 Lines in a Sonnet (Lbs in a Stone also accepted); 212 Boiling Point of Water in Degrees Fahrenheit; 510 Runs (Not Out) that Brian Lara Scored.

The following each win a year's subscription to Games & Puzzles magazine: Ian Bebbington (Ramsbottom), Michael Belton (Penarth), Harvey Rose (Chiswick), Nicholas Gough (Malmesbury), Mrs Y Davies (Huntingdon).

'The Anaesthetist'