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G for 'guilty'? Lost letter spells trouble at world Scrabble contest

Showdown ends with demand for British player to be strip-searched after tile mysteriously vanishes

In a week filled with sporting controversy, it was a missing letter 'G' that threatened to set the Scrabble World Championship on fire, as wordsmiths from around the world gathered in Warsaw to do battle.

At the event, which opened on Wednesday, a Thai player demanded England's Ed Martin be taken to the toilet and strip-searched to prove he had not hidden a 'G' tile that mysteriously went missing during their game. The judges ruled in Mr Martin's favour, sparing him the indignity of a search and seeing a tight defeat turned into victory by a single buttock-clenching point.

Ultimately, Scrabble's most controversial incident since one player accused another of eating a tile, did nothing to alter the competition's result. The trophy and $20,000 (£12,700) prize was claimed yesterday by New Zealander Nigel Richards, who assured his 3-2 win over Australian Andrew Fisher by taking 95 points with "omnified" – to have rendered something universal.

Mr Richards also deserved a crown for best beard – and least emotional response to the winning of a world title. Of the plethora of words he could choose from, the monosyllabic antipodean was blank-faced behind rocket-scientist spectacles as he found a simple four-letter word to describe his win: "Nice." Clearly words are for playing Scrabble with, not for verbal communication.

Walking into the games' room on Saturday evening was like entering the most intense of exam halls, populated as it was by 106 competitors from 40 different countries who have devoted their lives – and thousands of pounds of cash – to playing the board game.

But while the constant jangling of tiles inside the little bags made it sound like a den of rattlesnakes had slithered into the room, the mood was a curious mixture of good humour as well as desperate seriousness.

Many players, such as Brett Smitheram – a 32-year-old recruitment consultant who at sixth finished as Britain's top player – have photographic memories. It's easy to imagine them being haunted by chains of letters constantly charging through hyperactive minds.

"This game is not about words", Mr Smitheram says without any irony. "The vast majority of the top players are mathematicians or computer programmers. This game is about the probability that a set of symbols will come together in such a way that you can play them on the board."

It's for that reason that some players are among the best in the world despite English not being their first language – the previous champion was Thailand's Pakorn Nemitrmansuk, and in 2003 his compatriot Panupol Sujjayakorn won without being able to hold more than a cursory conversation with his English-language opponents.

For all that effort, it's far from lucrative; despite the titles Mr Smitheram has won, he estimates he has just broken even when travel and accommodation costs are taken into account.