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Scrabble: it brings out the worst in us...

Friday, 17 August 2012 - 12:56pm IST | Agency: The Daily Telegraph
The word game that brings out the Scrabble-rouser in us all

Egad! Zounds! Gadzooks! Those are only some of the politer expletives that trip off the tongue at the news that the noble game of Scrabble, saviour of many a camping holiday in Wales, has fallen victim to a cheating scandal that makes Olympic drug cheats look like saints.

At this month's American national championships in Florida, a competitor had to be ejected after he was caught dropping blank tiles - the equivalent of wild cards - on the floor before secreting them about his person, presumably to be used to get out of tight spots in later games.

It is the kind of low-grade skulduggery you would expect in a dysfunctional family on a wet Sunday afternoon. Remember that episode of Steptoe and Son when the Scrabble board became a war zone? To find top tournament players, verbally super-endowed types whose heads swim with words such as "qi", "xylem" and "zugzwang", resorting to such blatant subterfuge would be depressing if it was not so laughable.

But then, Scrabble does bring out the worst in people. It looks such an innocent, childlike game, with those little plastic letters; but if you are not careful, it can get up and bite you.

This was not the first time that the Scrabble world championships have been hit by allegations of cheating. At last year's event in Warsaw, a Thai player demanded, unsuccessfully, that a British player be strip-searched after a "G" went missing. Over the years, players have been accused of getting rid of tricky letters by swallowing them.

The prize money in competitive Scrabble may be paltry, but the Corinthian spirit is conspicuous by its absence. There is a poignant disconnect between the friendly family game of yore - brilliant at enlarging children's vocabularies - and the Scrabble of the testosterone-fuelled male (most top players are male), for whom winning is everything, even if it means using words not heard in daily conversation from one end of the year to the other.

The game is a wolf in sheep's clothing, ostensibly rooted in the world of books but actually requiring a quite different intellectual skill set. Aunt Betty may be happy with Victorian favourites such as "flotsam" and "begonia", but hard-nosed tournament players, out to maximise their score, fixate on idiotic little words that time forgot - such as "da", a heavy Burmese knife, and "zo", a cross between a yak and a cow occasionally sighted in Tibet.

"The game is not about words," says England Scrabble star Brett Smitheram. "The vast majority of the top players are mathematicians or computer programmers. The game is about the probability that a set of symbols will come together in such a way that they can be played on the board." Perhaps that is why it is so addictive, appealing to gambling types more than to wordsmiths.

Actor Alec Baldwin was recently thrown off a plane after refusing to turn off the smartphone on which he was playing Words With Friends, an addictive Scrabble variant. Martin Lewis, the financial journalist and founder of the MoneySavingExpert.com website, admits to keeping spreadsheets of his ongoing Scrabble rivalry with his wife, chronicling his superiority right down to his average score over 800-plus games.

And where, on the scale of sadness, do you begin to put 55-year-old Raymond Tate from Renfrewshire who, earlier this year, keeled over and had to be taken to hospital after dehydrating during an attempt to break the world 24-hour Scrabble scoring record? Plain bonkers, some would say, although Mr Tate would probably opt for "tsktsk", which scores more.

Some people who cheat at Scrabble end up looking simply ridiculous, bowdlerising the language they should be celebrating - a trait nicely lampooned in the Simpsons' episode in which Homer comes up with "kwyjibo", defining it as "a balding North American ape with a small chin". Others let their competitive streak run amok, souring the game for everyone else and using the dictionary as a battering ram.

Scrabble doesn't have to generate ill feeling, of course. For millions, it is still the gentle, mildly challenging game I remember playing with my mother when I was a boy. What a thrill I got when the letters on my rack suddenly formed themselves into a high-scoring word!

Played by celebrities as diverse as Mel Gibson and Britney Spears, Madonna and Janet Street-Porter, the 63-year-old game can be an ice-breaker at parties, even a precursor of Cupid's arrow: earlier this year, actress Sophie Winkleman revealed that her husband, Lord Frederick Windsor, son of Prince Michael of Kent, had spelt out his proposal on a Scrabble board.

But my all-time favourite boardgame-gone-wrong story features the former French goalkeeper Lionel Letizi, who missed two matches after straining his back while picking up a Scrabble tile from the floor. His club, Paris Saint-Germain, declined to say which letter was involved.

The Daily Telegraph

161800 GMT Aug12


 




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