“It’s a combination of both. The best players are those who absolutely love words and their meanings, who love language, reading and literature and have a very strategic brain. Many of the past world champions have been… a professor of music, for example, or mathematicians, or people with very analytical brains. If you’ve seen The Queen’s Gambit (on Netflix), where she plays out chess games in her head, it’s like that… it’s playing through the end-game in your head,” says Steven Gruzd, deputy president of Scrabble South Africa.
Even though players might use the same Scrabble sets casual players are familiar with, which have the same basic rules, competitive Scrabble is not quite the same game. First, it is a strictly two-player affair. “Scrabble is a very frustrating and unstrategic game with four players,” says Gruzd. Second, like competitive chess, the games are timed, using a chess clock.
“Each person gets 25 minutes for all of his or her moves. So I can spend five minutes on one move and 30 seconds on another, and so on. And for tournaments we only have 15 minutes for all the moves.
“I think the third big difference is the acceptability of words. Most people who play casually will use normal, everyday words. We use… not that they’re not normal words… but some of the words are obscure. So there has to be some kind of reference book.
“And at the moment, outside of North America that has been the Collins dictionary, which is updated. The Scrabble word list is updated about every four or five years as new words come into the language. There are also apps and sites that can be used to adjudicate words.”
While many of us are familiar with Scrabble as a recreational game played with family and friends, for Gruzd and fellow competitors it’s a passion.
“The mother of Scrabble in the country was the late Gwen Heiman. There is a building in the Johannesburg CBD called Anstey’s building, it was a very fancy department store and they used to play there in the 1960s. Then in the early 1980s, the Johannesburg Scrabble Club opened in Patterson park in Norwood, at the recreation centre. When I started playing competitively in 1984 that club was really vibrant. There were probably 70 or 80 people on a Monday night, some people would play until six, seven the next morning, they were obsessed with it,” he recalls.
Gruzd started playing when he was eight with his late mother. At first, she would play both racks to teach him, but soon he started to beat her. “And I was very lucky because I was at Houghton Primary School in Joburg, and one of the moms was the Transvaal champion and she started a Scrabble club at the school. She started coaching me, and then I entered my first tournament in 1984 and came home with an armful of prizes.”
As deputy president of Scrabble South Africa he is on a mission to help build the competitive scrabble community. But like other activities, Scrabble gatherings have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It really came at a bad time because we were gaining a lot of momentum. I’ve just recently been elected as the deputy president of Scrabble SA. And myself and Andrew Goldberg, who’s an attorney and the president of the association, have embarked on a big drive to really try to grow the game. But now we haven’t actually had any tournaments since February , which has been a real shame. In February, we had more than 40 people playing in a tournament, and we were hoping for our next one in March to be a bit bigger. Under normal circumstances we hold tournaments about once a month,” says Gruzd.
Scrabble is not as big a tournament sport in South Africa as it is in a number of other African countries. In 2015, at the World English-Language Scrabble Players Association Championship in Perth, Australia, Nigeria’s Wellington Jighere bagged top honours when he was named world champion. At the 2017 tournament, held in Nairobi, Kenya, Peter Moses, also from Nigeria, came second, while the Nigerian team was ranked as the world’s number-one Scrabble-playing nation that year.
“Scrabble is very active and very strong on the African continent. Many people are surprised when they learn that Nigeria is one of the strongest playing countries in the world. They get federal funding from the government for playing Scrabble, and they have hundreds of clubs and thousands of players. Other countries that are very strong are Kenya, Uganda and Ghana,” says Gruzd.
He has seen the popularity of the game in other African countries first hand as part of his business travels, in his work as a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “I run a research project that looks at governance and development in Africa, which is why I’m lucky enough to travel around our beautiful continent. I’m often in Kenya and every time I go there there are these 20-year olds who are brilliant players.”
The South African Scrabble demographic differs from other African nations, too. “South Africa is a little bit of an anomaly… Most of them are women, and most are older. You’ll find in [other places in] Africa, for example, maybe 90% are men aged between 15 and maybe 50.”
More recently, like much else, there is a thriving online scene, through games and tournament websites or apps such as Scrabble Go for those who want to take their game to the next level, beyond friendly family games.
“You don’t need to have studied 40,000 words to have a good competitive game. But you need to know the important words. For example, I think there are 115 – somewhere around there – two-letter words. Some are very common, like ‘to be or not to be’. But we also have ‘za’, which is an abbreviation for pizza, if you would believe; we have ‘gu’, a kind of violin; and ‘xu’, a Vietnamese coin. We have lots of interesting and strange words.
“So you’ve got to learn the basics, the twos then the threes and fours, then you go on to the ones with the Z, Q, X and J, because those are high-scoring tiles. Then you start learning the combinations of six letters plus one to make seven, etc. It’s a fascinating and very stimulating game,” says Gruzd. DM/ML