Scrabble champion defends world title against 106 hopefuls

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The Independent Online

Panupol Sujjayakorn was rattled. As we approached the halfway point in our tense showdown, the Scrabble world champion was trailing. But you don't get to be the best at the globe's most hotly contested boardgame by caving in to someone whose relationship with the infuriating yellow tiles barely extends beyond a muzzy-headed contest on Christmas night. And even if he knew his opening gambits of "soul" (eight points) and "foci" (28 points) were a tad on the weak side compared to my robust offerings of "lake" and "mitre" (42) he had plenty in reserve.

With the agility and grace of a panther, Mr Sujjayakorn silently destroyed me, slapping down "isolate" - a relatively low scoring word but one which picked up 50 bonus points for using up all his letters. I played out the five play game in a flurry of three letter words as he marched to victory 185 - 73.

The 21-year-old student from Bangkok won the world title in Malaysia two years ago. On Thursday, he will defend his crown as the championships are fought out over four days at the Marriott Hotel in Regents Park, London. Some 106 players from 40 countries will compete for the $15,000 (£8,650) purse.

Among the contestants will be Phil Appleby, a 47-year-old technical author from Lymington, Hampshire, who holds the world record for the highest ever score - a mighty 1,049.

Mr Sujjayakorn is in no doubt as to the secret of his success - practice. "You have to study the words," he said as he took on all comers at Hamleys in central London yesterday. "Scrabble is a game in which you use words that you don't necessarily use in everyday life. If you build up your words you can have a great deal of fun," he said, which explains how he manages to average 450 points a game and 20 points a word.

He puts in three to four hours a night poring over the specially-written computer programmes which provide lists of winning words and placings. The Far East is a hotbed of Scrabble talent. It is a popular way to learn English and the young have taken easily to a game which has adapted well to the cyber age with e-mail and internet Scrabble as well as a Playstation version keeping it among the most popular youth pastimes.

It is unlikely that the game's inventor Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect from Depression-era New York City, could have envisaged quite how successful his brainchild would become. His winning idea was to invent a game which combined equal amounts of luck and skill. Since it was first published in 1948 into a world where the popular diversions were crosswords and cards, it has sold more than 100 million copies and been translated into 29 languages in 121 countries. It probably reached its high point in 1954 when there was an eight month waiting list for a board. This year Mattel, which owns the global rights for the game outside the US and Canada, hopes to boost sales with themed versions of the classic game using popular television characters the Simpsons and Dora the Explorer. According to Philip Nelkon of Mattel: "It keeps it current and keeps it popular with young people but the game itself is a family staple."

The word on Scrabble

* Scrabble is sold in 121 countries. 100 million sets of the game have been sold in 29 languages.

* Celebrities who play Scrabble include Chris Martin, Christina Aguilera, Mel Gibson, Sharon Stone, Sting, Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

* Scrabble was invented during the Great Depression when , in 1931, Alfred Butts, an architect from Poughkeepsie (New York), lost his job and dedicated his time to developing a new board game.

* James Brunot officially registered the game in 1948 and hand-made and sold 2,251 boards in 1949, losing $450.

* World championships have been held annually since 1991.

* British record score in a game: 793 points scored by Peter Preston in 1999.

* The US Scrabble dictionary has banned all swear words and racial slurs.

* Underwater Scrabble was played in Portsmouth in 1995 in aid of Children in Need. Special laminated boards were used along with weights for the tiles.

* In 1985 Lt. Cdr. Waghorn and Lance Corporal Gill played Scrabble for 5 days continuously while trapped in a crevasse in Antarctica.

* Highest opening move score: the word "bezique" gave 124 points to Sam Kantimath in Portland, 1992. This is the best possible opening move with "cazique".

* Most bonus words in a game: 6 (bevomits, creative, escolar, onwards, aperies, miniates) by Bob Jackman in 1996. A bonus is scored when a player uses all seven tiles in his rack. Words of more than seven letters were added to an existing letter on the board.

Ilaria Linetti

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