Square-bashing and Scrabble scandals

I continue to write the regular ‘Briefing’ slot in the Sunday Times’ comment section most weeks.

This week I wrote about the scandal hitting the Scrabble world, after one grandmaster accused another of cheating and demanded he was strip-searched.

I quickly learnt that many Scrabble champions speak English as a second language – or indeed, speak no English at all – instead using their superior understanding of probability to calculate the most likely and best scoring letter combinations, before committing them to memory.

Fancy trying it? Start with memorising the two letter words:

AA  AB  AD  AE  AG  AH  AI  AL  AM  AN  AR  AS  AT  AW  AX  AY  BA  BE  BI  BO  
BY  DE  DO  ED  EF  EH  EL  EM  EN  ER  ES  ET  EX  FA  GO  HA  HE  HI  HM  HO  
ID  IF  IN  IS  IT  JO  KA  LA  LI  LO  MA  ME  MI  MM  MO  MU  MY  NA  NE  NO  
NU  OD  OE  OF  OH  OM  ON  OP  OR  OS  OW  OX  OY  PA  PE  PI  RE  SH  SI  SO  

Then the three letter words, then longer words using the most common letter strings.

And remember, you don’t need to know what they mean as long as they are in the Scrabble dictionary

Full text is on the Sunday Times website here, or after the fold

Scrabble: Square bashing

The strange case of the missing ‘G’ tile was outraging Scrabble followers last week. But it was not the first time the game had been hit by scandal

Cal Flyn
The Sunday Times, 23 October 2011

Mystery of the missing tile

Scrabble players were agog last week when a missing tile at the world championships prompted calls for a player to be strip-searched. Ed Martin, a British IT consultant and Scrabble grandmaster, was accused of secreting a “G” during a qualifying round in Warsaw. His challenger, Chollapat Itthi-Aree, a Thai maths teacher, demanded that officials take the Briton to a lavatory to search him. The judges refused and the letter was substituted with a spare. Martin went on to win his game by one point. However, the title and £12,600 prize was won by Nigel Richards, a New Zealander, who beat more than 100 competitors from 44 countries. He secured victory with the word “omnified” — meaning “rendered universal” — scoring 95 points.

‘Pretty intense’

It is not the first time Scrabble has proved less than sedate. In previous tournaments competitors have been accused of “brailling” (feeling for favourable tiles) and of swallowing a particularly troublesome letter. In 1995 an American player was disqualified from a competition when he refused to empty his pockets after a letter disappeared. “You’re dealing with some pretty intense people,” explained John Williams, head of the National Scrabble Association of America. “You feel like someone’s head is going to explode right in front of you.” The Association of British Scrabble Players (ABSP) was once sued by a competitor who claimed he had not been allowed adequate time to visit the lavatory. He won £90 in damages.

Who’s for a slice of ‘za?

Expert players average 35 points a turn and are more likely to be mathematicians than linguists. “This game is not about words,” said Brett Smitheram, a British player ranked sixth in the world. “Often we don’t know the definitions of these words because they’re just a means to an end. Some of the best players cannot speak much English.” Keen players memorise two-letter and three-letter words — such as “za” (short for pizza), “qi” (life force) and “zax” (a type of hatchet) — before moving on to words heavy with vowels or consonants, such as “ourie” (shivery) and “tsktsk” (an expression of disappointment). The ambitious also learn lists of the most statistically probable eight-letter words, which may earn a player an extra 50 points for clearing their tray.

Beyonce: 54 points

Some attempts to modernise the game have met stiff resistance. “Webzine” (online magazine) and “vlog” (video blog) were included in a list of additions to the official Scrabble dictionary in May, to the disgust of many purists. Last year the game’s maker, Mattel, prompted an outcry when it announced that a new version of the game would accept proper nouns and textspeak. It means, for example, that Beyoncé, the American singer, could score 54 points if carefully placed. Traditionalists will be reassured that it’s a long way off the highest recorded score for a single word — 365 for “quixotry” (quixotic behaviour) on two triple-word-score squares, played in a club game in America in 2006.

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