For a country that made Scrabble a "national priority", hosting this year's French-speaking world championship should have been Senegal's crowning moment. After taking three of the four titles up for grabs in Canada last year, Senegal – despite a national literacy rate of just 40 per cent – were the team to beat. Now it is going horribly wrong.
The winner of the youth competition was yesterday stripped of his title after lying about his age. Officiators discovered that Mamadou Youck was not 14 but 16 and promptly threw him out of the competition. Many of Senegal's other medal hopes have sunk without a trace, and all hopes rest on the shoulders of two brothers to rescue Senegalese honour.
It should have been so different. Scrabble is like a religion in this west African country. The Sports Minister formally declared Scrabble to be on a par with the nation's other passion, football and called for special pre-tournament training camps. President Abdoulaye Wade – patron of the National Scrabble Federation – had offered personal encouragement, telling players: "I exhort you to conserve your titles. You are among the best. I am proud of you."
Aside from the home advantage, Senegal had also seen crucial rulings go their way. Fourteen words from Wolof – the local language spoken in most homes – were allowed into the official dictionary, giving local players the chance to confound their French counterparts by pulling words like thiof (a local fish) and xalam (a lute) out with a flourish. Senegal now hopes that the brothers Ndongo and Matar Sylla can salvage national pride in the doubles competition, before the championship closes today. Otherwise the victory reception at the presidential palace in Dakar might be a somewhat lonely affair.
Scrabble en français
The 2008 Francophone World Championship being held in Dakar has attracted 600 entrants from 21 nations.
All contestants use the same board, which is projected onto a giant screen. The first seven letters to be used by all players are announced, and people have three minutes to come up with the highest-scoring word. Absolute silence is enforced.
The highest-scoring suggestion is announced and goes on to the central board. Each player gets the score from their own suggested plays. The game continues, with all players playing identical boards until the tiles run out.