Sport on TV: Just because you're clever, that doesn't mean game is in the bag

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The Independent Online

As you while away those long afternoons with the family over the festive period with bored, sorry, board games, the chances are you opted for Scrabble rather than a chess tournament. It's almost as intellectually challenging but not quite as daunting, and you can watch 'Star Wars' at the same time. And these days it's just as significant, prominent, momentous. The word game's popularity has exploded, detonated, fulminated, with 150 million sets sold worldwide in 31 languages, and Imagine: Scrabble – A Night on the Tiles (BBC1, Tuesday) showed that it is taken equally as seriously as its rather snobbish relative. After all, no less than the Beeb's doyen of the arts, Alan Yentob, was scrabbling around in his sack, occasionally lost for words.

One competitor at the US National Scrabble Championships in Dayton Ohio said: "When you're opponent is down, kick him!" And you're allowed to use as many swear words as you want; they are all permissible on the board if they are on the venerable Word List. Meanwhile, in How To Play Chess (BBC3, Monday), we heard how the grandmaster David Bronstein once took 40 minutes before he made his first move. His opponent thought the Russian was mocking him, and a few choice words would have been understandable.

Scrabble may not have the same gravitas or boast the array of strategies and tactics that chess has, but as Martin Amis said: "People think chess is a test of intelligence. It's not, it's a test of chess ability." One speed chess aficionado claims it's all about seeing "patterns in the board". Scrabble's official Word List, meanwhile, has 267,751 entries to learn, and Britain's Helen Gipson, the world's leading female player, admitted she had just reached the 23,000 mark for learning all the seven and eight-letter words "and there are about 31,000 sevens allowed".

Yentob indulges in some intellectual snobbery about "a world where words themselves have no moral value" because although Gipson knows all these long words, she isn't interested in what they mean. But then she thrashes him in a series of word tests and he becomes caught up in all the mystique (score = 22 points). Yet he has a point; English is not the first language of the reigning world champion, Thailand's Pakorn Nemitrmansuk (score = 20 points. With a name like that, it's no surprise he's the best). Like the speed chess players, he doesn't see the words as words but as pictures.

That seems unfair really, but it shows Scrabble, like chess, is more than just a game. It's about talent, not knowledge, and it's extremely competitive. But it hasn't yet evolved as far as chess, which now has a format called "chess-boxing" in which chess matches are interspersed with bouts of fisticuffs. Now that could come in useful for those languid afternoons with the relatives.