Picture: 123RF/Ekaterina Minaeva
Picture: 123RF/Ekaterina Minaeva

"How many words would you like to challenge?"

The computer screen is impassive-aggressive. There’s not even a blinking cursor, just the question mark and, under that, an illustration of a single red tile with the letter Z. This is the designated interface for querying the validity of a word that has been played on one of the 20-odd boards in use at the SA national Scrabble championship.

The function of the Collins Zyzzyva Word Judge Version 5.0.3 is simple. If you think your opponent has played a word that is not one of the 150,000-plus playable two-to nine-letter words contained in the current edition of the Collins Scrabble Dictionary (the dictionary contains only words, not definitions) you can issue a formal challenge, at which point the pair of you leave your table and approach the computer to see what it thinks.

If your challenge is successful, the other player has to remove his or her tiles from the board and miss a turn. There is a risk to the challenger too. If the play is acceptable, the person loses the next turn.

For tournament players there are also points deductions:a five-point penalty in addition to a lost turn for whoever’s on the wrong side of the word. It’s a calculated risk, particularly when games are close.

"If I’m behind, if I think I’m right, I’ll take the chance," says Llewellin Jegels, a lecturer and writer from Cape Town who, at the time of writing, was the fourth-placed SA Scrabble player on the ranking of the World English Language Scrabble Players Association (Wespa). "If [the score is] somewhere in the middle, why take that risk? The guy will know the tiles I have. He could block my words." Lawyer Jeyad Page (the third-placed SA player on the Wespa rankings) says he works it out in percentages in his mind. "It’s a feeling you get. Because there are so many words."

Tournament Scrabble is a universe away from the games I grew up watching as a child. My parents used to play each other for hours on end, a running tally of scores kept on a piece of paper on the inside of the box lid. My father was slower but patient, methodically puzzling his way through the seven-letter tile rack until he could coax out a "bingo" (seven-letter word). My mother, as always, was faster and predatory, looking for openings left by a careless opponent. Both ruthlessly exploited our precious hard copy of the official Scrabble dictionary — even though it wasn’t supposed to be used as an aide, only as a check.

Scrabble SA allows social players to refer to printed lists of acceptable two-and three-letter words during their matches (in Collins Scrabble Words there are 124 two-letter and 1,341 three-letter plays). But the competitive players —the ones whose games and scores go on the board with the World English-Language Scrabble Players Association — have to rely entirely on their wits and their memory or, failing that, their confidence.

Jegels says he has seen handwritten journals of some of the top Nigerian players —men like Lanre Yusuf Oyekunle, Jimoh Saheed and Sammy Okasagah —who wrote out every single one of the allowed four-and five-letter words by hand, including prefixes and suffixes, so they could learn them.

"The best players in the world are from Nigeria. Scrabble is federally funded there. They play it in schools," says Scrabble SA vice-chair Steven Gruzd. The game is also increasingly popular in Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, the Gambia and Zambia (three Zambian players attended the SA national championship), and the French-language version is played in many Francophone countries.

HOWZIT?

Scrabble SA vice-chair Steven Gruzd has put together a starter list of SA words that are playable in Scrabble games:

BILTONG
BOYKIE
BLIKSEM
BRAAI
DOP
DONDER
DUMELA
EINA
EISH
GATVOL
HOWZIT
HAMBA
INDUNA
INDABA
ISIT
JUKSKEI
KABELJOU(W)
MBAQANGA
NKOSI
SJOE
SKYF
SOSATIE
TIK
UBUNTU
VUVUZELA
ZOL

This list is extracted from an article first published in the SA Jewish Report

Gruzd works at the SA Institute of International Affairs and is the country’s second-ranked Scrabble player. He was sixth in the 1995 world Scrabble championships in London and still wears a T-shirt from the event, which the other contestants describe as "intimidating".

SA’s top-ranked player is medical doctor Trevor Hovelmeier (the national champion is Harry Wiggins, who has a PhD in mathematics; it’s a highly competitive field).

"Scrabble is a game of words. If you want to get better you must learn more words," Hovelmeier says, while trying to explain the concept of words as stems to which you can add other letters. "[The other day] I played for eight hours, studied [Scrabble] for two hours. And I work 12 hours a day. I study words in front of the TV. It’s very easy to study on your phone with flash cards." Hovelmeier has adapted an app on his phone specially for Scrabble purposes.

But "more words" is more complicated than Hovelmeier’s exhortation implies, because Scrabble words are both the same and not the same as words in real life. For example: I am the kind of person who literally read the dictionary as a child. I have worked as a writer for more than two decades. I teach journalism at university. I make puns for fun. I like to think that being good at words is my "thing".

And I lost almost every single one of the social matches I played —with the exception of two games I played against schoolchildren. In my defence, Scrabble rules also stipulate that EVILER and EVILEST are considered permissible words, and so is FLUTEYEST which, presumably, means "the most flutey"?

Winning ways

To be a Scrabble master, you need only to know words as if they were playable versus nonplayable sets made up of random variations of the same 26 hieroglyphs.

And you must know how they conjugate and pluralise, but not necessarily why, only so that you know which other letters can go on the top or the tail.

Hovelmeier has an app that tells him what the words actually mean, should he be interested. AUA is "a yellow-eyed mullet". AIA is a nurse maid. AI is a sloth (plural, AIS). AUE is a Maori term expressing astonishment. EUOI is "a cry that is made in a Bacchic frenzy. It is a fantastic way to get rid of four vowels," he says with great enthusiasm.

In 2015 the world’s best English-language Scrabble player, Nigel Richards from New Zealand, won the French-language Scrabble world championships despite reportedly not speaking a word of French. He studied the French Scrabble dictionary for two months before the competition.

A top-rated SA player, Gwen Rea, played the word OPGEFOK at a tournament in the UK (several South Africanisms are now accepted as Scrabble words; see box). "I told the player it was a very rude word. He said that I probably used it all the time. I said, no, it was the first time I had ever used it. I won that game by about 200 points, so it was appropriate."

"A lot of words become acceptable through common use. When words are used enough, they enter the dictionary," Hovelmeier says, adding that "some words leave too". In the previous update to the Collins Scrabble Word List, released in 2015, no words were removed but some 6,500 new ones were added to the list, including PWN, GRR (but not GRRL) and GIF.

The latest official Scrabble words update was released in May. The new dictionary includes words like gender-neutral pronoun ZE, also ZEN (which for some reason was not a Scrabble word just yet —though JEDI, as in a person who lives according to the philosophy of the warriors in the Star Wars movies, was), and the verb PLUTO, which means to decrease in importance.

For the players, it means an opportunity to learn hundreds of new play possibilities — thousands if you’re committed. As board games continue to make a global comeback (there’s apparently a growing market for "retro" Scrabble boards, with wooden racks and tiles), Scrabble SA is hoping it’s the perfect time to drive renewed interest locally.

It is exploring ways to grow the social side of the game as a feeder into the tournaments (anyone for Pub Scrabble?). Another key initiative is youth Scrabble events. A schools’ tournament is planned for September. Just don’t be fooled by the kids’ polite demeanours — they are word sharks.

On Twitter Gruzd describes the enthusiasm for the game as "SUPER! Which is an anagram for PURES, PUERS and PURSE". He later tells me that PUERS means to tan leather using dog faeces.

For more information on upcoming Scrabble tournaments or to find out more about the Scrabble SA schools programme, go to zascrabble.com.