Word perfect: The joy of Scrabble

To most of us it is a pleasant way to while away an evening. But to the contestants at yesterday's annual championships, the board game is more like a way of life
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The Independent Online

It was shortly after 2pm yesterday in a brightly lit basement auditorium when the arcane boardgame banter among a group of 30 or so people, united by their devotion to Scrabble, was interrupted.

A young man with a microphone, who stood out as much for his age as his smart suit, announced that in an adjacent room the tiles had been drawn and the head-to-head to decide Britain's premier Scrabble player had resumed following a sandwich lunch. A murmur of excitement rose from the assembled crowds.

Welcome to the 35th Scrabble Championships, an event where the elite meet to vie for supremacy in the deceptively tricky game dreamt up by an out-of-work architect during the Depression in Poughkeepsie, New York State.

Indeed Alfred Mosher Butts, who spent almost 20 years trying to get his game on the market, would probably be delighted to see just how seriously his creation is now taken in certain circles.

Along with the select audience who had made the journey to London to watch the action in person, more than 50,000 fans logged on to watch the final via the internet - a record number since the championships were first webcast in 2000.

This year's championships had attracted particular attention as the title was being disputed - unusually - by two men ranked outside the top 10.

For the purists, Christian Brown, a 32-year-old civil servant from Nottingham, and his opponent, Jake Jacobs, 57-year-old retired purchasing manager and former weight lifter from Ely, Cambridgeshire, reached the finals due more to their exhaustive knowledge of words than strategy.

With each game lasting about one hour it was one game apiece at the lunchtime interval with all those present agreeing that Mr Jacobs faced inevitable defeat in the second game due to his opponent pulling lucky tiles out of the bag.

But for those sat in the auditorium, the players isolated in an adjacent room with two officials, word reached us that, as our compere said: " The tile god is smiling on Jake."

Such was his fortune that he opened with "Mullion", the architectural word, earning him 72 points. Unperturbed, Mr Brown, shoring opportunism worthy of a champion, responded with "Talkers", converting "Mullion", in the process, into a plural. An "s", as every club player knows, should never be played for less than 35 points and Mr Brown had started off with 82!

On hand to give his expert analysis was a former champion, Alan Simmonds, treading the rostrum like a television evangelist. "Jack's got a nice rack," he told the audience. "There's a lot of potential for future goes if he can mind out for that "v". It's a real punisher and he's got to get rid of it."

His advice went unheeded and Mr Jacobs produced a "bunia", not a curry but a Hindu merchant. A sullen looking teenage girl, whose look was more skater-girl than Scrabble-anorak, was then prompted to pin the tiles on the giant replica board.

A buzz of disquiet then went around the room when Mr Brown showed his inexperience, laying "toot".

"He could have used "rotate" whispered my neighbour, an elderly woman from Exeter with a Mallorca leather spectacles case next to her scoresheet. "He's getting tired" she added.

With good reason, it appears as Mr Brown rose at 5:30am to catch the train to London. "I had a bit of a late one," he explained, raising his eyebrows knowingly. "I watched Match of the Day and then read a bit in bed."

Both finalists are typical of elite players, of whom there are about 1,000 in the UK, in the way they prepare. They stay sharp by playing one or two evenings per week for a local club - Mr Taylor's club meets in an Ely nursing home - and do anagrams, crosswords, computer Scrabble and read lots to improve their word power. In reaching the finals they have prevailed over 50 competitors in the semi-finals held in Birmingham.

The elite game differs to that played on dining room tables across the country only in that a table-top clock restricts each player to 25 minutes per game, with a 10 point penalty for each minute over that limit.

"A literate person who plays infrequently will score an average of 250 points." Said Philip Nelkon, a former champion since recruited by Scrabble's owner, Mattel, as their promotions manager. An elite player will score and average of four hundred points but what you have to remember is that it's harder for them because they are playing better opponents."

The best measure of supremacy, he adds, is points per move with the average player managing 20, rising to 30 for a tournament player.

Scrabble players are fond of all sorts of words - their success depends on them - but one they don't approve of is Monopoly, the nation's number one board game. Asked whether it was a "Capitalist Pig's" past-time, Mr Nelkon responded: "Let's just say its not a personal preference of mine, it doesn't have the subtlety of Scrabble."

Elite Scrabble knows that it has an image problem but seems too fixed on words - or not sufficiently concerned to call the consultants in.

The Association of British Scrabble players has more women members than men, but crucially fails to attract women of the optimum Scrabble age, around 30.

Sheila Anderson, a pensioner from Hornchurch in Essex, wasn't sure why there were so few top women players. "I've been playing for 10 or 12 years and I never tire of it because no two games are the same. There's a lot of skill involved but you can't win without luck and Christian got a lot of luck in the second game. Don't ask me my rating because I'm not telling you. People pretend they're not bothered about ratings but that's what it's all about at club level."

Behind her a simultaneous Scrabble match was taking place starring Brett Smitheram, a 27-year-old recruitment consultant from Basingstoke and the Tiger Woods of British Scrabble. He was taking on a dozen players at the same time and working up a sweat, literally. A glimpse at one board alone confirmed his word power as he laid, in order: Ovun ... Gelato ... Cantier ... Turd.

In a sense, his tour de force performance runs counter to the original aim of Scrabble, which Mr Butt first started working on with an early prototype called Lexico 1931. Fed up with games based purely on chance, and believing chess to be too elitist, he tried to combine the two elements but failed to sell his idea.

After seven years of refining he included a board but the advent of the Second World War saw his scheme put on hold again until 1948 when a manufacturer finally took a chance, renaming it Scrabble.

By 1953 Scrabble was a worldwide hit, and on the shelves in the UK thanks in part to the New York store Macy's, whose chairman fell in love with the game during a holiday and was outraged to discover that his store did not stock it.

Mr Butts died in 1993 at the age of 93 a lifelong player of the game - although never in the competitive arena that sprang up in the subsequent decades.

Yesterday, after almost four hours of play Mr Jacobs emerged triumphant with a 3-2 win thanks to scoring 423 in the final game, some way off his personal best of more than 700. He clinched the game and £500 prize with " solutive", earning 83 points and an unassailable lead.

His success was all the more alluring due to his background - in the 1980s he taught sports stars including Geoff Capes and the swimmer David Wilkie how to lift weights for the show Superstars. He proved the crowd's favourite, having overcome serious health problems which forced him to give the game up a few years ago.

"I am thrilled," he said. "My partner, Barbara, convinced me to play this year. After such a long break from the game, I would never have believed I could make it to the top.

"I'm over the moon, especially because it's my first time in this tournament. I need to go and crash out now."

For those rushing to dust off their boards, the experts have some advice: don't always go for the high score and keep track of the tiles. And cherish word ending with "ky" and two-letter words. Be lucky.

The lowdown on aiming high

How to become a Scrabble champion, by Brett Smitheran, former national champion, masters champion and three times British matchplay champion.

1 My biggest tip would be to never lose hope because you can always turn it around and there is always a minute chance.

2 Know the "bread and butter'' words that you have to learn. There are just over 200 two-letter words and over 1,000 three-letter words. You need a good knowledge of these.

3 Never waste a blank tile or an "s'' on a low score. With a blank you need to be scoring 50+ because it's the best tile in the bag and with an "s'' you need to be scoring at least 35 points.

4 Tile tracking. Keep track of the letters that have gone. Lots of players do this by ticking them off a list during the game. At the end, when there are no tiles left in the bag, you know what your opponent has on their rack. You also know towards the end how many vowels versus consonants are left.

5 Never think about words before a game. Completely relax by watching television and avoid Scrabble generally. I also used to get het up about player ratings but I stopped and it produced better results.

6 This is a psychological tip. If your opponent is looking skittish, yawn and throw your arms in the air to make yourself look as big as possible. This will put them off their stride.