Not just a game, but a way of life

On the last Sunday of every month, the sound of aggressive clicking fills a room of around 50 people, aged from seven to 87, they sit in pairs face-to-face at tables covered in plastic tiles.

The set-up of the room is rather simple and stripped back to avoid distraction. Rows of tables are filled with heads bent down in deep concentration. The location varies, but this time it is being held in the sixth form of a high school in Gants Hill.

“Exhilarating, exciting, nerve-wracking,” Sumbul Siddiqui’s eyes light up as she describes how she feels within the pin-drop silence of the room.

Players are divided into brackets based on ratings of previous matches and competitors make their way around the room as they progress through the matches.

Some are holding bags over their heads while reaching inside them for tiles, some are attentively scribbling down notes trying to deduce what letters their opponent has left, and others are delicately placing their words on the boards. Occasionally players will get up to check a word that has been challenged.

‘Coffeehousing’ is a term used to describe throwing off opponents with small talk.

The event is one of the biggest monthly Scrabble competitions held by The Association of British Scrabble Players (ABSP). Formed in 1987 as a not-for-profit organisation, it has been coordinating tournaments and providing a rating system for its hundreds of members around the UK.

Its aim is to promote interest in the playing of Scrabble and provide information and support to members, tournament organisers and directors. There are currently around 250 clubs in the UK alone.

A brief history of Scrabble

Scrabble was invented during the Great Depression by Alfred Mosher Butts, an out-of-work architect, who wanted to incorporate both chance and skill into a game. Alfred was enthusiastic about games and allowed his loved of chess, crosswords, and jigsaw puzzles to influence his design of the game.

Alfred analysed the front page of the New York Times to decide on the perfect letter distribution and values of each tile. The first names of the game included ‘Lexico’, ‘It’, and ‘Criss-Cross Words’ until he finally settled on the name ‘Scrabble’, which means ‘to grope frantically’.

However, after being released in 1948, the company struggled to turn a profit and made a loss of £350 until the president of Macy’s, an American department store, discovered the game and made a large order of sets for his store.

After a few hiccups in production and distribution, by the early 1950’s everyone “had to have one” in their home and the game rapidly spread from North America to other countries.

The popularity of the game has grown from a leisurely game into a competitive one with thousands of players and hundreds of clubs all over the world. The first World Scrabble Championship (WSC) was held in 1991 in London. Prizes range from £50 to £15,000 but most Scrabble players aren’t in it for the money, according to Sumbul.

Youth players

Scrabble player Sumbul Siddiqui

Sumbul concentrating on her next move [Maha Khan]

Sumbul Siddiqui is a 20-year-old geography student who is one of the best female youth players in the UK. She spends her free time doing word-study and going to intense scrabble tournaments as well as taking on the role of Youth Scrabble Ambassador for the Mindsports Academy.

Sumbul sees Scrabble as not just a game, but “a way of life” that has taught her patience and that sometimes “you need to accept failure in order to achieve success.”

She is the third generation in her family to be obsessed with the game, as her father and grandfather were prominent players in the Karachi scene in Pakistan, where Scrabble is also wildly successful. Siddiqui is deeply passionate about all things Scrabble and her dream is to see “more youths engaging with the game.”

Looking around the room, it is apparent that the average age of a Scrabble player is over 50 years old, but it’s refreshing to see a few younger faces getting engaged with the game. Seven-year-old Joshua and ten-year-old Reuben are Scrabble prodigies trained by their father, Alvin Moisey. The boys are home-schooled and do word study with their dad at weekends.

Joshua is the under-eight World Champion, and his brother Reuben is one of the best under-12 players. Joshua has a rating of 53 and Reuben has a rating of 80, average scores for adults, but impressive for children who haven’t been playing for very long. They find the game exciting: “Anagrams on the rack are fun to solve,” says Reuben, the more talkative of the two.

Reuben’s best word is AZUKIS, which he placed on a triple word to score 180 points, he tells me it means ‘bean’ in Japanese.

Joshua is more shy than his brother but likes the competitions too, and he finds it “funny that everyone recognises [him].” They have made some friends through Scrabble, but most of Reuben and Joshua’s friends don’t like it much. Their friends are “amazed of course, but they don’t really play at all.”

Reuben plays against his opponent [Maha Khan]

Reuben plays against his opponent [Maha Khan]

They got into Scrabble after their father “found a Scrabble board in the loft” and have been playing ever since they found a club nearby. For them, it’s a family hobby, and they have participated in tournaments from Dubai to Torquay. When they aren’t playing Scrabble, they are playing chess, or doing piano recitals and cycling the length of Britain to raise money for charity.

Joshua and Reuben are humble about their success, but seeing them in the room playing against opponents much older than them is amazing. Reuben excitedly plays a word as his legs dangle from the chair, his feet barely reaching the floor.

Soon a wide grin stretches over his face. He seemed to have done well in the match and got up to leave the table. But he is told off by his opponent, who is old enough to be his grandmother, for leaving without filling in the form at the end of the game.

However playing against opponents with a large age difference doesn’t seem to faze him at all, he “never feels any different.”

The brothers are keen to continue to hone their word skills and one day achieve grandmaster titles. Their next major competition will take them to Malaysia.

Shifting the demographic

Scrabble does tend to be mostly populated by older men. Sumbul would like to see “more Scrabble clubs develop to include a younger membership, especially more females,” as she feels the Scrabble scene tends to be male-dominated. Currently, she is working on organising a youth tournament in Romania for the summer with the European Youth Scrabble Association.

James Burley, the ABSP’s Youth Officer, echoes this sentiment; while there are rare prodigies like the Moisey brothers, young people are not heavily represented in Scrabble. James is worried that the demographics are heavily skewed towards an older generation and that it has a “shelf-life”, as the population of avid Scrabble players will dwindle if more young people don’t get involved.

It’s not just a game, but “a way of life”
– Sumbul Siddiqui

He aims to promote the game towards secondary school age teenagers, who don’t see it as “cool enough” to compete with video games and has been working on getting more schools involved, such as the high school in which the event is taking place. James believes that the way to get through to teenagers is through tablet tournaments and online word-gaming.

Another obstacle to increasing membership numbers is the ABSP’s marketing strategy. The website is its only form of communication to the public, and it is outdated and difficult to navigate. The team is also run solely by Scrabble players who double as volunteers to keep the tournaments running, so that is generally their sole focus of time and money. North American clubs are slightly more advanced and have monthly newsletters.

Ratings and titles

David Webb is ranked second in Britain. He is a ‘grandmaster’ player, one of about 20 in the UK. The title is achieved by maintaining a rating of 190+ for five consecutive years. The rating system is based on a rolling system of 100 games. Another title is ‘expert’ status which is a step lower than grandmaster, but no easy achievement either.

Webb has been playing at the highest level or over 20 years, having discovered competitive Scrabble at the age of 30 when it starting taking off in the country. David has “always loved words and word puzzles and crosswords, and when I found out that there was a competitive Scrabble scene, it was a natural fit for my interest in words.”

Webb was also on Channel Four’s Countdown in 1992, which is how he got into Scrabble, after hearing about it from the producer of the show.

He has also played against Nigel Richards, a New Zealand–Malaysian Scrabble player regarded as one of the best players of all time. David’s best word was PANEGYRY for 212 points played against Richards at the UK Open in 2011, the fifth of five successive ‘bingos’ in the game, and his highest score ever was PACKETED for 239 points.

Richards is the only person to have won the World Championship more than once, winning in 2007, 2011, 2013, and 2018. Sumbul describes him as “superhuman”, as he has memorised the French and English dictionaries.

David's Dweebovision channel [YouTube: zapateo99]

David’s Dweebovision channel [YouTube:zapateo99]

A few years ago, David launched Dweebovision, an unfortunate name he admits himself, a YouTube channel where he streams live play-throughs along with commentary for people to learn how to improve their game.

He was inspired to start the channel after watching poker tutorials and realised that there were no videos like that for Scrabble.

His main aim with the tutorials is to “articulate my thought processes when considering moves” and to “capture the emotion and drama of the game which makes it so compelling”. He also made the channel as “Scrabble currently has a low profile on the Internet, and this presents a huge opportunity which should be developed by the Scrabble community.” In addition to the video channel, Webb has co-authored a book, How to Win at Scrabble, with Andrew Fisher.

Playing at tournament level

The Association of British Scrabble Players runs on a solely volunteer-led basis, and they just coordinate tournaments and provide a rating system. Members tend to bring their own speciality equipment to tournaments: timers, special tiles, and boards that cost upwards of £100 for a basic tournament-appropriate board.

A competitive Scrabble game is played quite differently to a casual game at home with family or friends on a rainy evening. Each match lasts 50 minutes, 25 minutes per person and there is a 10 point penalty for each overtime minute. A timer sits next to the board, and each player holds a clipboard and pen to make notes.

A player holding the bag at eye-level to prevent cheating [Maha Khan]

A player holding the bag up to prevent cheating [Maha Khan]

There are strict rules that must be obeyed. For example to avoid cheating and ‘brailling’ – feeling the letters as they pull them out of the bag – players must hold the bag at eye-level or higher.

Opponents can challenge a word that they suspect of being a ‘phoney’ or a word that doesn’t exist in the Scrabble dictionary.

The jargon used is intriguing too. A ‘bingo’ is when all seven tiles are used in one turn to achieve a 50-point bonus. ‘Coffeehousing’ is a term used to describe throwing off opponents with small talk. ‘Fishing’ is when players play low-scoring two- or three-letter words to increase their chances of drawing more valuable letters.

There are also different ways of playing. The most common, as David Webb describes his style, is a fairly “vanilla” style, Webb doesn’t use any “fancy defence techniques” like ‘fishing’ for good letters until you can ‘bingo’ or play all the letters in a single word.

But when it comes to strategy, Sumbul finds that “Scrabble is 40 per cent word study and word knowledge, 20 per cent strategy, and 40 per cent luck, although some people would say its five or ten per cent luck.”

True Scrabble players will dedicate several hours a week or even per day to word study, using software such as Cardbox (on Zyzzyva) or Crackle to memorise seven-letter words. Some have a mathematical approach to the game and don’t know the meanings of the words they memorise, but some like Richard and Webb are dedicated to learning the meaning of the words too.

Scrabble in other countries

Competitive Scrabble is not just restricted to English-speaking countries either. It is huge in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Thailand. A striking difference from the UK is the age at which people start, as many Asian parents encourage their children to play to improve their English skills.

The attitude towards the game is also different, within Europe and the UK players are more relaxed and looking to have fun, whereas outside of Europe players have more of a sport-like mentality. There are more than 4,000 Scrabble clubs around the world, and the game is sold in 121 countries in 29 languages. However, the game tends to be played in English at competitor levels.

Typically players in non-English speaking countries don’t even speak the language fluently but still win. According to John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, “more than one Thai player has won the English language world championship with very little spoken fluency in English, but certainly the ability to memorise a large number of words in a foreign language.”

Chew finds it interesting playing against Thai players because their approach is entirely different from native speakers, it’s almost “alien”. Most Asian players, especially Thai, have a mathematical approach to studying for the game using rote learning; some English teachers would even refute the fact that Scrabble helps people learn English.

A sense of community

David Webb, Sumbul Siddiqui, Reuben and Joshua Moisey in the Scrabble room (left to right) [Maha Khan]

David Webb, Sumbul Siddiqui, Reuben and Joshua Moisey in the Scrabble room (left to right) [Maha Khan]

The Scrabble community is not just about competing for ratings. There is also a very social side to it. Most people are friendly and enthusiastic.

One of the eldest ABSP members, 87-year-old Phyllis is known for hosting and serving the best lunches although she is “always threatening to retire”, according to James Burley.

Most players take advantage of the opportunity to compete in other countries such as Dubai and Malaysia. Sumbul has made lots of friends this way, and now has Scrabble to thanks for her connections all over the world. She considers herself “lucky” that her parents have allowed her to travel for Scrabble competitions on her own since the age of 14. So far, with Scrabble, Siddiqui has been to Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, and Pakistan.

Scrabble has not only provided the foundations for friendships to blossom but also romantic ones too. Sarah-Jane met her husband Stewart through ABSP.

They had a Scrabble-themed wedding with an appropriately themed cake topped with edible tiles and surrounded by members from the community. Even while Sarah-Jane was in the early stages of labour, they continued to play; she managed to solve an anagram of her new-born son’s name minutes after the baby arrived.

 

 

 

 

 


Featured image by Maha Khan