Entering competitions can be a way of life. David Cohen talks to three die-hard 'compers'
They lurk all about us: in the nooks and crannies of newspapers, on the back of cereal boxes, underneath deodorant cans, on bottletops, in leaflets left in supermarkets. We see them but never notice them, screening out the words "Win!" and "Prize" like so much junkmail. We're talking competitions, brand-product consumer competitions, thousands every month, which most of us dismiss as an activity that makes train-spotting seem exciting.

But more than 150,000 Britons disagree. For them, filling out entry forms and conjuring up snappy slogans in order to win that elusive car, holiday, mountain bike, kettle, video, T-shirt or baseball cap has become a pivotal, sometimes obsessive, part of their lives. They are known as "compers" and they can spot the word "competition" from 100 yards.

Compers are usually solitary and secretive about what they do. It is not hard to see why. Last year, pounds 120m worth of prizes were won and in 1996, the figure is expected to rise to pounds 150m. The fewer people that know about this, they reckon, the better their chances of winning.

Many compers (170,000 of them) subscribe to Competitors Companion and Prize Draw Winner, the twin pillars of the comping subculture, which are available by subscription only (pounds 15 a year). The magazines analyse winning slogans, offer tips and provide a comprehensive list of the two types of competition available each month: the simple prize draw, where you fill in your name and address on a postcard, send it off and first out of the hat is the winner (skill factor - zero); and ones that require you to answer a few simple questions and complete a slogan (the purists' favourite).

Mark Shapiro, a manager of Chartsearch, publisher of Competitors Companion and Prize Draw Winner, says: "More than 60 per cent of subscribers are women and about a third are middle-class pensioners. Compers are usually people with time on their hands."

For the sociable comper, there is the National Association of Competitors' Clubs, which has 50-odd clubs around the country and where compers get together in pubs and hotel rooms to swap slogans, trade entry forms, socialise and brag about all the useful and useless prizes that they've won.

Alice Cunningham, 33 and single, is a housing officer in Devon.

A year ago, while I was convalescing after emergency surgery, I started doing consumer competitions as occupational therapy. At first it was the odd one here and there, but recently I have become addicted: I enter 80 competitions a month and when I'm not doing them, I'm thinking about them. I keep all my entry forms, stamps and postcards in a box. It's ideal because if I go away for the weekend I take it with me. My friends think I'm nuts but then they're also quite envious when I tell them I've won a week in Prague.

I read books on how to write winning slogans and study it seriously, like you would a subject at university. I prefer competitions that require slogans and a bit of skill. I'm loath to share my secrets, but as a general rule rhymes and puns are good, as long as they're not too clever because the slogan needs to be understood by the masses.

I never used to be superstitious, but I always go to a particular post- box to post my entry forms. You could say I have developed a meaningful relationship with my post-box.

I have won 10 times in all, including a bottle of brandy (I don't like brandy but it was exciting anyway); three compact discs (I don't have a CD player); theatre tickets to something I wouldn't have chosen to see; a set of champagne glasses, and a kitchen knife. The buzz is winning, the prize is secondary.

My mother says it's a "babyish thing" to do. I think she means "unsophisticated". I wouldn't try to defend it on that score, but for me it's deeply relaxing, a way of cutting off from problems of day-to-day life.

I subscribe to Competitors Companion and Prize Draw Winner and get entry forms by subscribing to a free database called Teldata - you send off 30 competition slips and you get 30 posted to you in return. My main cost is stamps - about pounds 16 a month. I make my own postcards. It's a whole new world that I never knew existed.

For me the competition thing has been like joining a club that makes me feel normal. I'm quite eccentric and I get obsessive about strange things, like the sea and the colour blue, so it's a relief to know that what I do is shared by a hidden community of thousands of individuals. I want to find a holiday company that offers a themed package tour for people who enter competitions. If I can't find one I'm going to organise it myself.

Leslie Jerman, 74, grew up in East Ham, east London, one of 18 brothers and sisters. He became London correspondent for the 'Scotsman'. He is retired and lives in Epping Forest, Essex.

When I was eight, I wrote an essay for a local newspaper, the East Ham Echo, and won a globe of the world. It was the first competition I ever entered and, apart from a lull during the war when there weren't many competitions around, I haven't stopped since.

This week I won a pounds 300 video recorder in a post office draw in which you had to answer four easy questions. My entry was simply the first out of the hat. Most of my wins are more calculated though.

I don't usually enter competitions in national newspapers because they get up to 500,000 entries and the odds are so poor. But in local newspapers, the competition is hardly there at all.

I've won about 120 prizes in my life. Each time the sense that I have pitted my wits against thousands of others and won is a boost to my ego. I won a microwave oven in an Iceland competition for frozen food in which I wrote: "It's the finest food you ever thaw". I gave the microwave away without even unpacking it. Some of my memorable prizes include 120 pints of Yorkshire Bitter; a magnum of champagne, which I'm keeping to bathe in one day; half a hundredweight of butter spread over six months (I was trying to lose weight so I traded it in for gin and had a party); a cricket bat; a tennis racket; a ball-bearing scooter from Hamleys when I was 12 years old; two tea-sets; two electric shavers (my son commandeered one); pounds 500 cash in Vernon's Spot-the-Ball (it's a bit of a bore filling in all those crosses); and a two-week vacation for two in Russia (which was the last place I wanted to go so I gave it to my daughter).

I usually know when I've won. I cut down an apple tree in my garden to make space for a pounds 1,000 greenhouse that I was convinced I would win. My wife said: 'Why have you cut it down?' I said: 'I've won a greenhouse'. 'When did you hear?' she asked. 'I haven't. Why don't you accept what I say?' I said. I was very bombastic. A few days later the phone rang and they told me that I'd won the greenhouse.

I read eight newspapers a day and I find competitions in all of them. It's a disease that I have. I often enter competitions for prizes that I don't want. It's all about winning. But I don't buy products to enter competitions. I'm not that barmy.

Sheila Wilson, 66, a single mother and former antiques dealer, began entering consumer competitions six months ago after she retired and her three children had moved out. Her home in London resembles a junk yard of cut-out newspapers and magazines.

When I was seven years old, I won a pair of braces in the school raffle, but that was the only prize I ever won in my life. I never gambled bringing up three kids on my own - there was no money for that - but now that I'm supposed to be retired, I lay my hands on anything that says "Enter".

At first I entered one or two a week, but now it's mounting up to about 75 a month. Every morning after breakfast, I spend an hour rooting around the newspapers looking for competitions, filling out the forms and posting them off. It gives structure to my day, something to focus on as a way of adjusting to retirement. It's a cheap form of therapy.

So far I have won two crumby rings (they looked like diamonds in the advertisement, but turned out to be Barbie-doll jewellery), a large bottle of rum and a stainless steel hip-flask.

I only enter competitions with easy questions where the answers are given in the blurb. Like for the rum, it was: "What is the capital of Barbados? What are the ingredients of rum?" The hook for me is getting something for nothing. I'd love to win a trip round the world.

I'm quite secretive and I have told very few people about my new obsession. It is gambling, after all, and, having been schooled in a French convent, I feel rather guilty. There is a loneliness and a desperateness about it. My daughter doesn't approve. But with the children grown up, you think: where do I go from here? There is so little hope in England. John Major is a useless wimp; Labour won't make any difference. I get my hope from competitions."

Compers' favourites: 12 phrases that win time after time

It gives a gastronomic thrill, not an astronomic bill

Having discovered perfection, why risk random selection?

When it comes to style, it wins by a mile

Experts perfect it, connoisseurs select it

I quaff like a toff, without selling the Van Gogh

I've tried the rest, now I'll stick with the best

To keep this ageing lassie keep her slim chassis

It's thirst come, thirst served

They're de rigueur for the bon viveur

When it comes to the crunch, there's no better munch

Family lunch or gourmet dinner, [product name] is a certain winner

Source: Chartsearch, publisher of Competitors Companion