Inside the Scrabble world champs: The best players in the world gathered in Christchurch for the 2017 World Senior Scrabble Championship. The Herald's Kurt Bayer went along to check it out and learn some new words.
Tiles rustle like pebbles on a receding tide. Hands burrow blindly in cloth bags, fingering hopefully for helpful letters. An all-purpose blank, a versatile S, or one of the four "power tiles": J (8 points), X, (also 8 points), Q, or Z (10 pointers).
The incessant tile clatter pervades the room. Banter is scant, the murmur of a downtown library. The players, known as Scrabblers (an appropriately brilliant word in itself), are deep in thought. It is a world championship after all. Strategising, racking deep memory crevasses for a four-letter word ending in B, marking cards, out-maneuvering opponents.
"It's a real numbers game but there's a yin and yang to it, some days you just can't win," says David Gunn, a Scrabble veteran with more than 2000 games and a 49 per cent win ratio.
The Hamiltonian adjusts his faded black Las Vegas cap and scans the room. Some of the world's top Scrabblers are here, for the 5th World English Language Scrabble Players Association (Wespa) World Seniors Championships held at the Christchurch Bridge Club.
More than 100 players, aged 55-plus, from 12 countries. Some real guns too, including hometown favourite and reigning New Zealand champion Joanne Craig. She tops the leaderboard early on day two and would eventually take top honours.
But everyone's talking about the stellar move that Lynn Wood just played: Quadding. An eight-letter blockbuster that spanned two triple-word scores, earning her 209 points – the most for one move so far in the tournament. She's sitting pretty for the $40 prize.
"That's a really good score. The average score is probably 25-30, I suppose," says an admiring Murray Rogers, who has just returned from the world championships in Nairobi, Kenya.
Rogers earlier played a "triple triple", forming "Unspared" with two blanks, gaining him 113 points. He talked it down as "not that impressive", but he was chuffed all the same.
"It doesn't happen too often."
Scrabble is one of the most popular board games in the world. The game, which dates back to 1938, is trademarked to Hasbro in North America, and Mattel everywhere else. Approximately 150 million sets have been sold worldwide. Roughly one-third of American and half of British homes boast a Scrabble set.
Most of us have played at some point. At home, around the kitchen table or on the lounge carpet in front of the fire. Sliding dodgy words past Granny at Christmas, discarding X with Axe: "Double word score: 20!" It's a fun game for all abilities, especially with the advent of junior and picture Scrabble.
But the world champs is something else altogether. Trying to join in would be like entering the Monaco F1 Grand Prix in a Suzuki Swift or playing tennis against Roger Federer with a stick of rhubarb. They've learned a different language. The words are exotic, fantastical, recherche even: Taraire, Etatism, Deen, Rerhined. The Collins dictionary, described by tournament director Paul Lister as the aficionado's bible, has 276,664 Scrabble words up to 15 characters long, the maximum allowed. And the players learn scrolls of helpful words. They know all the two-letter beasts: Xi, Os, Oo, Di etc, which can nestle into tight spots, and form multiple combinations, escalating scores appreciably.
In preparation for this competition, Rogers studied a print-out of more than 10,000 four-letter words. "I review that constantly," he says, "They come in handy."
Although they know an obscene number of words, Scrabble players don't always know their meanings. They don't need to.
The world's greatest player, Christchurch's own Nigel Richards showed that to a remarkable degree in 2015 by being crowned French Scrabble champion without barely speaking a word of French.
The multiple-world champion, now based in Malaysia, comes up a lot in between-match chit-chat. "Do you know he once entered a tournament in Dunedin, cycled the whole way from Christchurch, over those big hills, won the tournament, and turned around and biked home? He's incredible," says Ruth Groffman, New Zealand Scrabble Association secretary.
Richards, with a photographic memory, is regarded as the Tiger Woods of golf. But Gunn reckons that's unfair. "He's got a wickeder* hit-rate than Tiger."
Square tables adorned by velvety maroon tablecloths are dotted around the room. Players hunch opposite each other, predominantly bespectacled, tiles guarded on their racks, some of which are personalised; wood-carved, name inscribed; others plain green box-issue. The boards are affixed to a spinning mechanism.
After a player's turn, the board rotates like dishes at a Chinese restaurant. They punch a clock. Each contestant gets 25 minutes to play their turns. Games, in theory, should then take less than 50 minutes.
The pace is quietly frenetic. It's all too much for some. A Japanese Scrabbler has slept in and missed his first match of the second day. "A world championship and you sleep in!" says a bewildered Lister, "but even Olympic sprinters have done that, I suppose."
Players can challenge words if they doubt their existence. "Challenge," they say, and both players slide back their chairs on the gaudy tartan card-themed carpet, and stroll over to one of two laptops. They punch in the disputed word and it either responds with a green tick of Acceptable or a red cross of Unacceptable. If it turns out not to be a word, the tiles are removed and the player loses their turn. If it's a wrongful challenge, the opponent who laid the tiles correctly is gifted five points.
A missed challenge can cost you a match. Rogers later sips water and chides himself for missing a chance that he put down to a lack of attention. "I just knew it wasn't a word," he says, shaking his head.
Words evolve. New ones are constantly added. In 2015, Collins Official Scrabble Words updated with Onesie, Vape, Tweep, Bezzy and Lolz.
But it's not to everyone's liking. "Obvs is allowed now, and that's not good," says a dismayed Gunn. "Do you know what a Mofo is? That's allowed now too."
Disbelieving, this reporter sprang over to the challenge computer and punched it in. A green tick. Five points, Mr Gunn.
'Great way to learn'
They break for lunch. Supplied sushi and Subway rolls. Now they can relax and chat. Groffman sits with her left leg raised on another chair.
"What happened to you?" many gently ask as they pass with piled plastic plates. Groffman is sitting out matches after breaking her kneecap walking into a bollard in the still-chaotic Christchurch CBD days earlier.
But she managed to talk her way out of hospital to join the fun. It hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for the game.
Like many players, Groffman started playing as a child. And as a mother, she played every evening with her kids.
"Every night, they couldn't wait to play," she says, especially given her incentives: a 20-point score was rewarded by a chocolate biscuit.
"It's a great way of bringing the family together and also a great way for kids to learn English, maths, and strategy, which is something that they often aren't taught until university," says Dunedin-based Groffman, who is responsible for youth scrabble.
For the past 17 years, a primary school tournament, with four-player teams, has been held in Dunedin. She's seen the benefits of it, as a learning tool, but also as a way of keeping youngsters busy and out of trouble. She would love to see a similar tournament adopted in lower-socio economic areas, particularly in parts of Auckland.
"For some reason, Scrabble helps improve all their school subjects. To be able to think ahead and set things up in a certain way, it's quite a skill. It keeps the brain active, and that's why you see a lot of oldies here, it keeps the Alzheimer's away."
Groffman, like many others, enjoys playing online, competing against others from around the world. "The beauty of that is that I can play at 1am, if I want to."
For most players, it's their main hobby. A passion. Gunn, 63, and his partner Annette Coombes (who can lay claim to that rarest of things, a victory over Nigel Richards), play 4-5 games every night. They give each other a run for their money.
"Sometimes, Annette wins ten in a row," Gunn grins. "Yes but," Coombes replies, "I won't win for ages again."
Respect and compliments
The atmosphere, while quiet and studious, is collegial. Scrabblers respect each other and are quick to dole out compliments: "Wow, you're on a roll, girl". But they're humble too: "Well, you know what happens next."
After lunch, a few yawns are stifled. "It's time for my afternoon nap," one player says, sitting down to a new game.
On Table 9, a marquee match-up is under way. Top of the world's top players, Auckland's Patrick Carter and Australian Karen Richards (no relation to Nigel "Tiger" Richards), are settling in.
"Ready? Let's enjoy," Richards says. She holds the full tile bag above her eyeline, and in a signature gesture, shakes her hand before groping for seven starting tiles.
Her opening salvo is Gyve – 22 points. It takes her just 54 seconds to come up with the play.
Carter is quick to respond with Aguize. Two words that this reporter has never heard of.
Waiting their turns, hands rest pensive on forehead, chin. Tiles are rearranged, always plotting, updating options.
A few moves in, and Carter stacks high with Resiled – 71 points. It appeared an impressive breakaway move. Richards, however, counters with Jointer – 66 points. "Always a response," Richards notes sagely. Carter says ruefully, "I did think about playing there."
His next move proves a turning point in the match. He lays Shankers for a potential 72 points. But Richards isn't having it. "Challenge," she says quietly. Both players start walking to the computer. Carter thinks a shanker is someone who mishits a golf ball. The computer disagrees. "That could cost you the game, that," notes Richards, who would soon lose a challenge on Abducter.
The game moves swiftly. Within 15 minutes, the board is filled with amazing words. The players are busy: writing scores, rotating the board, hitting the timer. Later, they start ticking off letters that have already been played. With no tiles left in the bag, they each know what letters their opponent is left with. Richards is up 377 to 368, with two extra tiles. She takes her time to play the killer blow: an Elect-Dome double that scores 28 and secures victory.
"Shankers," Carter says afterwards. "It made sense to me, if you shank a golf shot. But I haven't swotted it, so… Do you know what an Egosurfer is? Someone who Googles themselves."
* I checked: wickeder is a word. Challenge Unaccepted. 5 points.