Telegraph article about Scrabble
The joy of scrabble
Last Updated: 8:01pm BST 09/08/2007
Words to take your breath away
The world-famous word game is having a surge in popularity thanks to the website Facebook. Addict Sam Leith celebrates its enduring appeal
Couple playing scrabble
Scrabble can be a ribald and competitive business
Every now and again, an email will ping into my inbox. This email will be from the novelist Jenny Colgan, and its subject line will be something along the lines of "Give me an 'S'â€¦ Give me a 'C'â€¦ Give me an 'R'â€¦", and it will cause my heart to leap with joy.
For it will presage an evening of red wine, takeaway pizza and intimate relaxation with a handful of like-minded friends in her discreet Fleet Street flat. We might chew qat until we get xi. Those of us with an ax to grind will do so, ideally in two directions. Others work on the flow of their qi. Sometimes, someone will show us his SOWPODS. Oh yeah. You know what I'm talking about.
My introduction to this circle - through a Scrabble-loving mutual friend - is an invitation I prize above all others in literary London. Until recently, I imagined we Scrabble-fiends were a dwindling minority: steam-age hold-outs in the electronic era.
Not so. Cyber-scrabble is on the march. Only two months after the launch on the social networking site Facebook of an application called Scrabulous - which allows you to play with your friends online - 200,000 people are reported to have signed up.
The historian Tom Holland, another Fleet Street regular, says the online game "is to normal Scrabble what an Olympics in which all the athletes openly took steroids would be to clean athletics", and likens its pace to that of a "test match".
But if nothing else, the rise of Scrabulous tells us that - 76 years after the game was invented by an unemployed architect with a bit of plywood board and a page of the New York Times - its truth goes marching on.
Its appeal is wide, too. Gyles Brandreth, who started the National Championships in the UK, says he was inspired after visiting Bristol prison and seeing two convicts playing Scrabble. "I also happen to know that the Queen enjoys the game," he says. "The broad appeal of Scrabble was brought home to me by the realisation that it is played by the Queen and by those detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure."
Other aficionados of the game are reported to include Nigella Lawson, Sting, Robbie Williams and Kylie. Adding an "S" to "HOTPANT", as the thimble-sized Aussie lovely will be able to tell you, earns a not-to-be-sniffed-at 63 points even before you take any multipliers into consideration. A friend of a friend recently had her boyfriend propose to her on holiday, in magnetic travel Scrabble tiles.
The comedian Richard Herring, who once got "EQUATORS" across two triple-word scores (203, he seems to remember), actually wrote a sitcom about Scrabble players. It wasn't commissioned - "a shame, as it brings together a wide range of people" - but I suspect this is because he was ahead of the curve.
The time is surely right for Scrabble to be declared "the new poker". The two games have, it must be said, a lot in common. They both go well with late nights, smoky rooms, sidelong glances and psychological warfare.
In poker, when you're short-stacked, it's worth going all-in when you catch something that looks like a hand, rather than be blinded out. In Scrabble, once you're hopelessly behind, you start chancing your arm on words like NEGWEEB and WINNET.
In poker, you've always got to think about pot odds. In Scrabble, you're making similar calculations. "QUENG" would score you 42 points, as opposed to the measly 9 you'd earn from "ENDS" (not to mention that being a waste of your "S") - but you know there's only a five per cent chance, at best, that it's a word, and not only would you miss a go if challenged, but you'd be leaving EN open and you're fairly sure that Pru is squirming like that not because she needs the loo but because she's got the "X" and is dying to play "XENON"â€¦The most important thing Scrabble and poker share is the bad beat stories.
Sure, you remember the great bingos - when you play all seven letters from your rack, incurring a 50-point bonus and a feeling of what we might call world rulership. I once got "BIRTHDAY" across two triple-word scores, notching up a score so flabbergasting that I'm doing a little dance, right now, in public, five years on.
But what you really remember are the bingos that never were - how you were about to turn "MEN" into "ANADYOMENE" when some blithering, bloody, nincompoop turned it into "AMEN", scoring a pathetic six points, when even with that "A" alone he could have got nine somewhere else on the board by making "AX". Idiot!
Also, as in poker where after returning home you cherish the memory of the stone-cold bluff you pulled off, in Scrabble you go home and cherish the memory of the entirely accidental bluff you pulled off. "I can't believe I let you play 'FEDS'," Jenny reproached me by email the morning after the first time we played, still smarting from having "TOVES" disallowed (someone, my guess is in a previous Scrabble game, had long ago convinced her that all the words in Jabberwocky were real).
It turned out, though, that "FEDS" was acceptable after all. But "CRINGEY", which she had to my astonishment let pass unchallenged, is not a word. That was what won it for me. Yay!
Victory by cheating is all the sweeter in Scrabble. Jenny knows this only too well. "My personal proudest moment," she says, "was in the writer's club, playing some random letters I couldn't get rid of on a triple - it was something completely stupid like 'GYAO' - which caused a huge furore and people stomping off to consult the full version of the OED. To everyone's acute annoyance, it was actually in there as an archaic form of something or other and I got the points. To compound my annoyingness, two turns later I got the same letters and played it again."
She reminds me, too, of the touching moment when the novelist Matt Thorne squandered two blanks to achieve "BANANA" - something that chimes with Matt's own confession: "I'm very much the dunce of the Scrabble group. Last time I couldn't work out how I had so many blanks, until someone pointed out I had the tiles upside down."
There is, of course, another level. A few years ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter called Stefan Fatsis published one of the great sports books of our, or any, day. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players (almost every word in whose title could be tasty, it occurs to me, in the right place on the board) describes the author spending a year attempting to improve his game enough to enter the rankings of the world's top players.
It is, like any account of something being done at the highest level, riveting. Tournament Scrabble, as Fatsis discovered, resembles the game I play roughly as much as a Sunday kickabout resembles the Champions' League.
It is more about maths, pattern recognition, rote memorisation and anagramming than it is about making interesting words. The world's best Scrabble players will be able to tell you whether a given word is in SOWPODS [the official tournament word-list], but they will have no idea - and no interest in - what it means.
For the rest of us, though, the spirit of insane competitiveness is tempered by the desire to show off and be silly. Many times, I have sacrificed points in order to make a clever long word - or, better yet, a dirty word. That's part of the fun. "QI" in two directions could score you 62 points; but QUAHOG gets you the girl.
What's most fun about Scrabble, though - and it only applies to real, person-to-person Scrabble - is what athletes term the "warm-down exercise". At the end of the evening, you muddle up all the tiles, divide them equally and take three minutes to make the most obscene and imaginatively misspelt sentence you are able. Poker players don't get to do that. And that's why - in your face, Amarillo Slim! - Scrabble is much, much cooler.
Words to take your breath away
(The condition that results from interruption of respiration)
(The circulating life energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things)
(Relating to or made of quartz)
(Of or pertaining to a keyboard having the keys in traditional typewriter arrangement)
(A card game similar to pinochle that is played with a deck of 64 cards)
(The 14th letter of the Greek alphabet)