Scrabble is much more than just a word game. Lindsay Walsh meets local players from the Portsmouth and Southsea Scrabble Club and learns about the tactics and health benefits of this traditional pastime.
Most people are familiar with the game of Scrabble. The excitement when you place your first seven-letter word or hit the triple word square with something involving a zed. The smile when you realise your tiles spell a rude word and the frustration at having the troublesome Q but no U to keep it company.
One person who’s never lost for words is Michael Baxendale, treasurer of the Portsmouth and Southsea Scrabble Club which meets every week to battle it out over the familiar green board.
‘It’s a good mental workout playing Scrabble,’ says Michael. ‘Generally we are here for three hours and we play three different games. When people come for the first time they go home shattered because of having to concentrate for three hours – if you’re not used to it it’s quite a surprise.
‘When I came the first three months I don’t think I won a single game! But despite not winning I stayed because I was fascinated by it.’
Surprisingly, it seems that maths also plays a big role in Scrabble.
Michael explains: ‘I have a love of words but Scrabble also appeals to me from a tactics point of view.
‘I was a maths teacher so it appeals to me on that side as well. If you are playing and mathematically inclined it’s easier because you learn to set words out to your best advantage.
‘Some of the best players in the country are also from a computer background or that sort of thing. Some of them have photographic memories and the top players can look at their letters and work out the probabilities of words.’
Despite the extremes of competitive play, the club offers an approachable environment for first-time players.
‘This is a very welcoming club,’ says Michael.
‘We try to help people get started and allow them to use the word lists because it can be daunting. There’s a strong community here and people go out of their way to make others welcome.
‘They even give other players tips while they’re playing! The whole idea is to encourage members, to help them improve and enjoy the game as much as we do.’
Alongside the friendly atmosphere, players can enjoy a spot of healthy competitive spirit.
Michael says: ‘We all just play for the pleasure of the game, but we still want to win.
‘We try to memorise hooks, which are letters that can add on to the beginning or end of a word.
‘So for example with the word ‘hare’ an S would be a hook which makes ‘share’. It’s an easy way of scoring points and if you’re ahead you try to make it difficult for your opponent, avoiding words that have hooks.
‘A good score is 350 and 400 is very good. Some of us have scored 500, but that means you have been extremely lucky with the letters.
‘There’s always a bit of excitement and sometimes a bit of dread when you first get the tiles out of the bag.
‘If they’re bad you don’t worry too much and hope things will improve because if you allow yourself to be put off too much by the first couple of moves you’d give up.
‘It’s possible to make a comeback against an early lead. I’ve been more than 100 points behind but then I’ve scored a bonus and overtaken them.
‘You pick up tricks from the others. The more you play the more you learn and you are learning almost the whole time when you are playing against better players.’
And what is Michael’s favourite word to play during Scrabble?
‘I use zooeae quite a lot. Don’t ask me what it means but it has scored me a lot of points!
‘The Official Scrabble Words is just a list of words not their meanings, so we often learn words without their meanings. ‘
Michael’s favourite word refers to the larval stage in crabs and scores 15 points but there are also some other interesting words that might surprise first-time players.
He reveals: ‘Some Christian names are allowed that have another meaning. For example, Peter also means a safe cracker and Joan is not allowed but Jones is.’
Jean Shaw, membership secretary for the club, also knows the value of unusual words.
‘We’ve got a list of two and three-letter words which we don’t consult but if anybody new comes we let them use it for a while to get used to it,’ she says.
‘It’s very useful actually, it’s amazing the words that are there which people have never heard of.
‘There are also quite a lot of words which have Q in and don’t need a U afterwards. There’s qat, qaid, qadi, qin – there are a lot!’
As a former journalist Jean has a passion for language and discovered Scrabble while living abroad with her husband.
Jean says: ‘I’ve been playing Scrabble for a long, long time. My husband and I lived in Singapore for a while during the 1960s and we bought a set there. We used to play and I just got hooked on it really.
‘There is a fairly good standard of players at the club. We go in for local tournaments in places like Southampton and Bournemouth and we also have an internal competition each year where we play everybody else.’
Jean often takes an inspirational approach to playing.
‘You’re surprised when you’ve put a word down that you know in your life you’ve never used before. It just comes to you sometimes! I was playing recently, I put down the word ‘prolate’. It sounded right to me and it was queried but it was there! It just comes from the back of your mind sometimes. It’s satisfying when you’ve put down a word that’s been challenged and it turns out to be right’
As well as the joy of victory, Jean loves the social side of playing Scrabble.
‘I’ve made a lot of friends in Scrabble and know a lot of people all over the country because we’ve been to tournaments. I’ve even got friends who organise Scrabble holidays abroad. We’ve been to Africa, Madeira, Spain, all sorts of places.’
Jean thinks there are health benefits to the game too.
‘Scrabble is very educational and they do say that it stops degeneration of the brain as you get older. It’s been mentioned that it wards off Alzheimers. I don’t know whether that’s true or not but it’s good to have your brain active isn’t it?’
Jean thinks the challenge of Scrabble is why people get hooked.
‘You’ve got seven letters in front of you and what are you going to do with them? We all like a challenge in different respects and you never overcome the challenge of Scrabble because there’s always another game.’
Peter, 75, from Southsea has some advice for new players.
Peter says: ‘As a beginner it’s best to try for smaller words because you can waste a lot of time waiting for the right letters for a bigger word.
‘I started playing Scrabble at home. It’s a good game because it’s part luck and part skill – if you get the right tiles you can beat a better player. The best draw is the first, you always think ‘‘what am I going to get’’?
‘What everybody’s looking for is a seven-letter word because you get 50 bonus points for one, but knowing small words is essential too.
‘ There are 109 two-letter words and everyone in the club has memorised them. When I first came I challenged almost every word that went down because I didn’t know any of them, but now I know a lot more!’
Peter, 58, from Cowplain has been playing Scrabble for 40 years, 30 of which have been spent at the Portsmouth club.
Peter says: ‘The early Spectrum computer had a Scrabble programme on and I became hooked on playing with words. I like playing competitively around the country and I play online too almost everyday.
‘It takes practice to start learning the two, three and four-letter words, but a lot of us can look at the jumble of letters and see the words. I even have a special book where I make a note of any interesting words I find in games and when I read.’
For Margaret, 79, from Milton, taking part matters more than winning.
Margaret says: ‘I’ve been playing Scrabble for about 18 years. I love the game, but I’m not the best speller in the world! I make mistakes but I still enjoy it. Sometimes you put down something you don’t think is spelled correctly but it’s in the book!
‘Luck definitely plays a part in Scrabble. If you don’t get the right tiles you don’t get a look in. I used to be competetive but not anymore. I’d rather have a nice game and lose than annihilate somebody. It’s much nicer to have a really good game that keeps you interested.’
Rita, 79, from Southsea enjoys the social side of playing Scrabble.
She says: ‘Scrabble keeps your brain active. You meet people and it’s very social and competitive. You can go away to tournaments if you want and I have been to quite a few. You can also go on Scrabble holidays and I went to Malta in January.
‘I’ve had a bit of practice so I do quite well – it’s a very interesting game!’
- The youngest ever UK National Scrabble champion was Allan Saldanha, aged 15 years, who won the competition in 1993.
- The UK National Scrabble Championships offer a prize of £2,500 while the World Championships had a $10,000 (£5,800) prize last year.
- The World Scrabble Championship, held every year since 1991, has never been won by a British player. The highest-ranked UK player was - Mark Nyman, who was the World Championship runner-up in 1999.
- Scrabble is sold in 121 countries and is available in 29 languages including Swedish, Russian, Dakotah (an American Indian Sioux dialect), Hebrew, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Welsh and Hungarian.
- The highest opening move possible in Scrabble is muzjiks (plural of a word meaning a Russian peasant) which scores 128 points.