Board games: masters of the table-top universe

Britain's love affair with games of ingenuity is never-ending. And of the millions that play them, there is an elite few. Thair Shaikh discovers who they are
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The Independent Online

In a game where more than 80 per cent of the players are men, Rachel Rhodes is not only the present British Open backgammon champion, but she is also the only player to have won the title twice.

Backgammon

In a game where more than 80 per cent of the players are men, Rachel Rhodes is not only the present British Open backgammon champion, but she is also the only player to have won the title twice.

In April this year Ms Rhodes, 42, saw off the best backgammon talent in the country in a keenly fought tournament in Hinckley, near Leicester. Despite also winning the title in 2000 and playing an average of one tournament a month, Ms Rhodes says much of her success in backgammon is down to luck.

"There is a lot of skill involved but the luck element keeps it interesting because the roll of the dice could change a game very quickly. It is an addictive game and you have to be resilient; people who take part in tournaments are a mixed bunch but everyone tends to be friendly.

"There are no cash prizes in backgammon tournaments because under gaming laws it's classed as a game of luck and not skill, probably because the throw of the dice ultimately determines your fate ... there are some people who earn a living by playing backgammon, but there aren't that many in this country; you have to travel abroad."

Ms Rhodes started playing in 1987 and says most tournaments have between 40 to 80 players who come together at the weekend, usually in a hotel in the Midlands. Most players are middle-aged but younger ones have started recently.

She is competing in the backgammon world championships in Monte Carlo in July but does not rate her chances. She said the trip was as much a holiday as a competitive exercise. Ms Rhodes, from Hebdon, West Yorkshire, who works for a food co-operative, says she can teach people how to play in 10 minutes and she taught a five-year-old to play. Backgammon players have to "race" their checkers home and try to block the checkers of their opponent.

The modern version of backgammon is thought to have become popular across Europe and the Middle East in the 17th century and was considered a contest for kings.

Scrabble

Mark Nyman is an expert at using words such as waxworm, cubages, miltonia and other terms most of us will never use or come across in a lifetime.

Yet he can conjure them up from a jumble of letters in no time and has used these skills to win the National Scrabble Championship four times and the World Championship in 1993, the only Briton to have done so.

Last November, he won the final of the British championship by beating Andrew Cook by three games to two with an awesome display of his vocabulary.

He said: "The match was over the best of five games and, after I'd gone two up, Andy won the next two to ensure a nail-biting finale. The decider was tense but I squeezed home with the 50-point bonuses, using all my letters in one turn, OUTSWORE, OVERWENT and TAUTEST. The game turned on Andy missing PELERINE [a woman's cape] which would have scored 140"

As anyone who has played the game will know, you do not have to know the meaning of the word to gain points and win; the only important thing in Scrabble is the length of the word as each letter carries a score, some higher than others.

Even Mr Nyman, 41, a former producer on television'sCountdown, admits even he knows the meaning of only about 80 per cent of the words he uses.

There are Scrabble tournaments almost every weekend in Britain and international events are increasing. The world championships began in 1991 and have been held biannually since.

But despite being a former world champion and four-times national champion, very few will have heard of Mr Nyman, from Knutsford, Cheshire, and his word-conquering skills.

And that despite the fact that almost every other household has a copy of the game, although things might be about to change. Scrabble could be the subject of a Hollywood movie based on the bestselling book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis. The screenplay is being written.

Scrabble was invented in 1931 in New York by Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect. He came up with the 15-squares-by-15 plywood board, the vital double and treble-value squares and the 100 tiles. He computed the individual points value of the letters by counting the number of times each appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

It still sells more than two and a half million copies worldwide every year. The World Scrabble Championship this year will be held in London in November.

Chess

Jonathan Rowson was the first Scotsman to win the British Chess Championship for 58 years when he took the title last August. The grandmaster had to eat chocolate during one of the games to keep his blood sugars level up; he has suffered from type 1 diabetes since the age of six.

"The audience probably thought I was showboating with my Snickers and watching the progress board of the other final game, but things had physically gone a bit 'random'," he said.

Rowson, 27, ranked 150 in the world and a grandmaster since 1999, went into the championship as second seed. He was runner-up in the 1997 European Junior Championship, Scottish Champion in 1999, 2001 and 2004, and winner of the Canadian Open in 2000,

An Oxford graduate who also has a masters from Harvard, he beat Andrew Greet in his final game to win £10,000 and leave with "a normal blood-sugar level".

The author of several books on the game, he said chess had a bad image in Britain: "Players are sometimes perceived as nerdy, brainiacs or intimidating, but my best performances come from choosing wholeheartedly to be there."

Rowson once played 150 games simultaneously, beating the existing British record of 142 that was set in 1956. He played 150 games at the same time and 155 games in total, losing one, drawing 13 and winning 141.

Unlike national chess champions elsewhere, Rowson does not have a high public profile or make lots of media appearances. Garry Kasparov, who is ranked number one in the world by the World Chess Federation, is a leading celebrity in Russia.

Monopoly

At the age of 19, Adie Prince is one of the youngest and most confident winners of the British Monopoly championship. In a dingy grey room aboard the HMS Belfast on the Thames, Mr Adie showed a ruthless business streak that won him all his three games and £5,000.

A law student at Sheffield University, he said "When I win it is skill and when I lose luck ... It's about seeing the weaknesses. Ripping them off. Knowing what to sacrifice ... I know when I can win. I can see it immediately."

In terms of tactics, he says that the orange squares are the most landed on and therefore whoever buys them wins the game.

Matches can last for hours and some have gone on for days, for the winner ultimately has to buy or bankrupt his opponents, and the skills involved are balanced by the roll of the dice that controls players movements around the board.

The world champion last year was Antonio Zafra Fernandez, a 36-year-old from Madrid, who won a tough contest in Tokyo. The first championship was held in 1973.

Monopoly is one of the most successful board games ever invented - more than 20 million sets have been sold in the UK since it arrived in 1935. The game was invented in 1943 by Charles B Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, who was then unemployed. The game was rejected by a toy company for having 52 errors.

Tiddlywinks

Andy Purvis has published acclaimed scientific papers on animal biodiversity and global conservation, but he still regards his World Singles Tiddlywinks Championship win as one of his greatest achievements.

Dr Purvis, a senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at Imperial College London, beat the American Larry Khan in the competition at Queens' College, Cambridge, last October.

Having played tiddlywinks for 20 years after first coming across it while a student at Cambridge, he thinks it is a "proper" game. At the time of his win he said: "It's a brilliant game which deserves to be taken seriously. It is complex and quite creative."

The competition is played on a challenge basis; a player must become the National Singles champion to challenge the current world champion to an official match, played over seven games.

Tiddlywinks has roots going back to the Victorian era, but the modern game can be traced to a group of Cambridge undergraduates in 1955 who wanted to invent a sport at which they could represent their university. Within three years Oxford had taken up the challenge and during the Sixties another 37 universities joined in.

It is played on a 6ft by 3ft mat with a pot in the middle. Each player has six small counters of different colours, winks, which are manoeuvred around the mat using a larger disc, a squidger. The aim is to get all your winks into the pot first.

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