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The pulsating cut and thrust of international Scrabble

  • 27 February 2007

What with the Ashes being a let down, the One Day Internationals more interminable than ever and Federer just too bloody good, the serious student of TV sport has been shamefully sabotaged this summer. There was beach cricket, of course, but don’t start me on that. Then suddenly, bereft, contemplating alcoholic comfort, and idly browsing, I came across a flyer for the National Scrabble Masters Tournament.

Interested as always in the arcane, I sought out the Tournament organiser, a woman who, according to the website, was called Ann Smith, but who told me when we met that she’d changed her name to Ann Xafz [giving her a basic score of 23 but a blinding 69 on a triple word spot in those games where you’re allowed to use your surname]. I naturally deferred to this adjustment and thereafter endangered the wellbeing of my larynx by twisting it round the labyrinthine corners posed by the words ‘Ms Xafz’.

"Well, Ms Xafz," I began, "tell me about the tournament. Do you have Scrabble enthusiasts coming here from all over the world?"

"Oh, indubitably," [24 with triple word score on the ‘b’] she said, "And just while we’re on that, I’d like to point out that there are 109 two-letter words in the English language. Twenty-seven of these are familiar, like 'it', 'in' and 'to', but among the eighty-two others are incantations, (Om), mathematical symbols, (Pi), and various contractions that can be highly controversial if deployed [basic score of fifteen but go for triple letter score on the 'y'] in competition."

"I suppose," I probed, "that for an audience, Scrabble is a bit like Chess – long periods of silent concentration, the drama of waiting."

"Well, I don’t think Scrabblers see much drama in waiting," she speculated. "The best players tend to be aggressive about slow opponents. If time wasting is suspected, what is known as the Rintoul-Bollock manoeuvre is sometimes employed in tense finals competition." "The Rintoul-Bollock manoeuvre being …" Ms Xazf gave me a pitying look. It appears that a player named Thelonius Rintoul-Bollock, the Republic of Vultava’s sole international standard Scrabbler, was in sight of victory in the 1968 Scrabble Scramble at Scunthorpe, when his opponent attempted to run a word across Rintoul-Bollock’s 'zizmathoid' [48 with double-word scores on the first 'z' and the ‘d’].

This bloke apparently hesitated for long minutes until Thelonius initiated the ploy that bears his name,