Life, etc

Scrabbling to the top

By Rebecca Davis 30 July 2013

There is a subculture for whom Scrabble is a great deal more than a family board-game you pull down at Christmas when everyone’s tired of conversation. Indeed, South Africa has just crowned its latest national Scrabble champion: Cape Town’s Llewellin Jegels. REBECCA DAVIS peeked into the world of drama, skullduggery and triple word-scores that is competitive Scrabble.

Last year was a bad year for competitive Scrabble. The 2012 USA National Scrabble Championship, which took part in Orlando, Florida, was hit by scandal. One player, a wunderkind of 13 years old, was exposed after a suspicious opponent noticed that he kept appearing to draw the prized blank tiles from the tile bag. It emerged that the little sneak was palming the blanks before each game and then pretending to draw them from the bag when it suited him. Max Karten, a former champion, complained to The Atlantic that cheating of this kind was degrading competitive Scrabble.

Nonetheless, the outcome – a judge was called, the tiles were counted, and the cheat expelled – was less dramatic than the way scenes might have unfolded at the World Scrabble Championships in 2011. There a Thai player demanded that his British opponent be strip-searched in the toilet, accused of hiding the letter “G”. The judges ruled that such a search would be undignified, and replaced the missing G tile with a new one. The Brit went on to win the game by just one point.

“Scrabble is a game of personal honour; opponents police themselves and each other,” a compelling Sports Illustrated feature stated in 1995. “As a result it is rife with feuds and imagined slights and muttered complaints. Players are as sensitive as flowers to any sign of ‘coffeehousing’ – the practice of trying to throw off an opponent by slurping a drink.”

South Africa’s newly-crowned Scrabble champion, Llewellin Jegels, says that these kinds of intimidation attempts are routine. “Absolutely, it happens all the time,” Jegels told the Daily Maverick. Competitive Scrabble sounds… intense. “Social players are quite shocked to see how we play,” Jegels agrees. “There’s a chess clock, it’s one-on-one, the game has to be finished in 50 minutes.”

The story goes that Scrabble was invented during the Great Depression by an unemployed architect called Alfred Butts. With a name like that, Mr Butts was surely no stranger to the power of word-play. Butts wanted to create a vocabulary-based game which nonetheless had an element of chance, and he called it the infinitely less-marketable ‘Criss-Cross Words’.

Butts was no linguist, but he hit on a cunning way to determine how frequently different letters should appear on Scrabble tiles: analysing the front page of the New York Times to see which were the most-used vowels and consonants in the English language. He deliberately limited the appearance of ‘S’ (just four per game) to deter plural words which would make the game too easy. A marketing partner suggested he change the name to ‘Scrabble’ after initial attempts to sell the game failed, and trademarked it in 1948. The rest is history – or at least, it was after the popular department store Macy’s began to stock the game, according to legend.

There’s a widespread notion that the people who work with language the most – writers, linguists – would be the best at Scrabble. Although Jegels himself is a writer and publisher, he says this idea simply doesn’t hold. “Many good Scrabble players are mathematicians. They seem to understand the probability of certain sets of tiles being picked. What is the probability of picking the word ‘retained?’ Very high; we’ve computed that.”

Scrabble players often rely on extremely obscure words to win their games. Jegels sends a photograph of the board after he’d won his final game at Nationals. The majority of words on it are unfamiliar: yag? Zoril? Qats?

“We don’t learn the meanings of all the words,” he explains. “It’s an extra memory burden to us. You just need to know that the word is there. As competitive players, the words represent opportunities to crush opponents with high scores. They’re like chess pieces.”

Like most competitive Scrabble players, Jegels learns lists of hundreds of thousands of words off by heart. Players take new words and re-arrange them alphabetically, to learn. Then, when the tiles are in front of the player, hopefully the memory prompt will supply the underlying word.

“We also have to learn all the anagrams of the words,” Jegels says. This allows players to choose the more obscure option, in order to make it more difficult for the next player to build off it. “Say you could play either RADIANT or INTRADA,” Jegels says. (Intrada, a dictionary informs me, is a “musical introduction or prelude, esp. in 16th and 17th century music”. Most of the world’s competitive Scrabble tournaments use the Collins dictionary, though the US favours Merriam-Webster.)

You’d be better off to go for INTRADA, Jegels explains, because your opponent is less likely to be able to think of ways to extend or modify the word. (For him, the task would be simple: add a Y, and you’ve got INTRADAY, “occurring in the course of a single day”.)

Before tournaments, Jegels will play Scrabble intraday, every day. Sometimes he’ll have a flesh-and-blood training partner, he says, but more often than not he uses a software programme which analyses moves based on their potential score.

The computer programme he’s talking about is called “Quackle”, a seldom-heard word meaning “to choke”. In November 2006 it became the first piece of software to beat a Scrabble world champion in a best-of-5 match. “For competitive Scrabble players,” the Journal of Experimental Psychology noted, “the defeat of human intelligence by artificial intelligence is a watershed event comparable to the May 1997 win by IBM’s computer programme Deep Blue in a chess match against the reigning champion Gary Kasparov”.

The comparison between chess and Scrabble comes up several times during a conversation with Jegels,  who loves playing chess as well. He acknowledges that Scrabble currently lacks the status or prestige of chess. “In time, that will come, but it will take a while because of its association with family fun,” he says. Jegels thinks one of the biggest misconceptions about Scrabble held by non-players is the role of luck.

“For a social player, luck plays an enormous role,” he says. “For top players, because we understand probability, we’re doing something different. If luck is the issue, how is it possible for top players to keep on winning?”

Jegels, who declines to give his age but says he is a contemporary of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, started playing Scrabble in the ’80s. “I was boarding with a family, and the mother taught me the game. One day her nephew and I played from 9pm to 6am. Then I was hooked.”

In South Africa, he says, the competitive Scrabble scene is small. On Scrabble SA’s official website, there are listings as to the clubs which offer regular Scrabble games to newcomers. At the Centurion Scrabble Club in Johannesburg, you’ll learn, the record for highest-scoring word is held by the club’s founder, Jackie Nortier. Nortier’s record on an individual word was a whopping 212 points for SQUARING.

Nortier’s 212 points might seem enviable, but it’s not the highest score on record within South African tournament Scrabble. In 2004, Ros Finn took home 253 points for the single word OUTFOXES at the Chambers Cup tournament. Even that is not as high as the score achieved by one Debbie Hossy, playing one Ian Hossy, in a social (i.e, non-tournament) game in 1974. There, Debbie allegedly sewed up matters with 344 points for CITIZENS/PAIRINGS. Let’s hope Ian took it on the chin.

Still, these too are small-fry when compared with the theoretically highest-possible scoring word, which has never yet been played: OXYPHENBUTAZONE, an anti-inflammatory medication used to treat arthritis, which has to be played across three triple word score squares, building on eight already-played tiles. If those perfect conditions should come along, the game is yours: 1,778 points for that little nugget.

To win SA Nationals, Jegels had to beat his final opponent by 114 points. To make matters worse, his opponent was the fearsome Kenyan Scrabbler Nicholas Mbugua, a multiple champion.

“I went to the bathroom, gave myself a pep talk, went back, shook his hand, and said: Nick, you do know that I’m playing for my country,” Jegels recalls.

“I thought to myself, I’ll play boldly, and take risks. I have to be fearless. If something seemed plausible I’d play it. I had to beat him, and that’s what I went ahead and did.”

When the two players’ final tournament scores were tallied, Jegels had beaten Mbugua by an additional 18 points.

“I let out a little shriek of joy,” Jegels said. “I took a photograph of the board. There were tears in my eyes.”

Is it possible to become rich and famous from playing Scrabble? Jegels sounds skeptical. “Famous, maybe a little bit,” he says. “Rich…there are maybe two or three players worldwide who could seriously say they’re making money off it.”

The rest are in it for the love of the game, and the sense of community. As the Scrabble benediction goes: May the Q be with U. DM

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