Scrab­ble

‘I think be­ing in the right frame of mind is worth an ex­tra 50 points be­fore you start’

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Richard Can­non

There are 161,293 rea­sons why you shouldn’t con­tem­plate a game of Scrab­ble with Brett Smitheram. That fig­ure is the to­tal num­ber of el­i­gi­ble words be­tween two and nine letters long in the game’s lat­est dic­tio­nary and, in­cred­i­bly, Mr Smitheram’s brain has soaked up al­most all of them. The 38 year old ad­mits that his big­gest prob­lem now is for­get­ting the re­dun­dant ones dropped from each new edi­tion of Collins’s Of­fi­cial

Scrab­ble Words.

‘There are ac­tu­ally 276,663 en­tries in the cur­rent dic­tio­nary, but that in­cludes words up to 15 letters long,’ ex­plains Mr Smitheram as we sit down to play. ‘re­al­is­ti­cally, no­body would study be­yond nine, al­though I have used maid­ser­vant and spring­tail.’

I’ve cho­sen Peter har­ring­ton rare Books in London for our game, mainly be­cause the shop has an in­tim­i­dat­ing col­lec­tion of dic­tio­nar­ies that could prove a dis­trac­tion. Per­haps the 1755 edi­tion of Sa­muel John­son’s A Dic­tio­nary of the English Lan­guage might be a suit­able pi­quancy (triple-word score: 152).

how­ever, I’m go­ing to need more than luck. even a watch­ing group of well-read staff is bam­boo­zled as Mr Smitheram re­veals his let­ter mixol­ogy: ‘I won last year’s ti­tle scor­ing 176 with bra­conid, which is a type of par­a­sitic wasp.

‘My high­est ever score was 302 with qua­torze, but the world record for one word is caz­iques, played by Dr Karl Khosh­naw in 1982. It means In­dian chief and, played across two triple-word scores, achieved 392.’

Mr Smitheram, an ex­ec­u­tive head-hunter from Ching­ford, es­sex, rarely plays a game face to face, in­stead choos­ing high-cal­i­bre op­po­nents on­line via a web­site called Mind­sports Acad­emy (www.mind­sport­sacademy. com). ‘I did play my girl­friend once, but I don’t think that was a good idea,’ he con­fesses. ‘She’s bet­ter at Sur­vive, a game about es­cap­ing from a sink­ing is­land.’

There’s no need for my travel Scrab­ble set ei­ther, as my op­po­nent has ar­rived laden with gear. he car­ries a cir­cu­lar, ro­tat­ing board in a cym­bal bag, plus a ta­ble-top timer and a dic­tio­nary in his back­pack.

Af­ter set­ting the board out and fill­ing a cloth bag with 100 let­tered tiles, there’s just one

‘Even a watch­ing group of well-read staff is bam­boo­zled by Mr Smitheram’

more item to put on the ta­ble—his 2016 world-cham­pi­onship tro­phy. The glass statue nor­mally has pride of place on his tele­vi­sion and, as a state­ment of in­tent, it’s worth its weight in gold.

Scrab­ble isn’t much of a spec­ta­tor sport, but I’m feel­ing qui­etly con­fi­dent with my first set of seven letters: G,J, T, E, O, F, R, a healthy mix of vow­els and con­so­nants. How­ever, Mr Smitheram has first go and, within sec­onds, plays ebony.

I’m still shuf­fling my tiles as he starts the clock. Each player has 25 min­utes of play in com­pet­i­tive Scrab­ble—my games at home are usu­ally punc­tu­ated by cups of tea and dog walks, but, here, the pres­sure is re­ally on.

As well as scor­ing, Mr Smitheram is also mak­ing a note of ev­ery let­ter played. This al­lows him to pre­dict which tiles are left in the bag—or on my stand—at all times. See­ing the sec­onds tick­ing away, I fol­low with a mod­est jog. It’s about as close as I get to par­ity of score as my op­po­nent then un­leashes a string of lit­tle-used words in rapid fire. Trig, stone­fly, zooid, dis­train and tardo, which, I’m in­formed, is an Aus­tralian slang word.

I can think of a few of those my­self as Mr Smitheram places his fi­nal tiles on the board and adds up the scores. I’m beaten 220 to 443, al­though I’m not en­tirely sure he was giv­ing it his full at­ten­tion. Af­ter all, he once played 15 games si­mul­ta­ne­ously and won the lot.

Born in Truro, Corn­wall, the cham­pion player only took up the game in his mid teens. ‘I had the choice of chess or Scrab­ble at school lunchtime. I opted for the lat­ter be­cause a for­mer pupil had be­come a grand­mas­ter at chess and I would al­ways have played in his shadow.’

He won his first tour­na­ment in Ex­eter, aged 17. ‘I was a bit of an un­known quan­tity back then and it paid off,’ re­veals Mr Smitheram, who stud­ied the­ol­ogy at univer­sity. ‘I played in my first world cham­pi­onships, in Mel­bourne, when I was 20 and was fourth at the start of the fi­nal day—then, jet­lag kicked in.’

He be­lieves that, in Scrab­ble, prac­tice doesn’t al­ways make per­fect: ‘I spend a lot more time learn­ing words on a com­puter pro­gramme. I’m very lucky be­cause I had a pho­to­graphic mem­ory when I was younger, so my vo­cab­u­lary grew rapidly.

‘Scrab­ble is a mind sport and it’s vi­tal to ap­proach each game with a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude. I think be­ing in the right frame of mind is worth an ex­tra 50 points be­fore you even start.’ Top play­ers don’t fix­ate on high-value tiles such as J, Z, X and Q, he says, be­cause they can prove a dis­trac­tion. ‘Use them as quickly as pos­si­ble. Try not to play a de­fen­sive game just to block your op­po­nent’s next move.’ I no­tice that Mr Smitheram has a dis­tract­ing habit of squeez­ing the let­ter bag as the game ap­proaches con­clu­sion—this prac­tice is within the rules and al­lows a player to con­firm the num­ber of letters left in play. Win­ning the 2016 world cham­pi­onship in Lille, France, net­ted the man sit­ting op­po­site me €7,000, but he claims there is lit­tle fi­nan­cial gain af­ter pay­ing for travel and ho­tel ex­penses. ‘I’d love to see Scrab­ble grow, but more prize money is needed,’ he as­serts. ‘All I’m rich in is words.’

Does he have any favourites? ‘Zyzzyva is a type of trop­i­cal weevil; qiviut is the down of an Arc­tic muskox bird. The best word def­i­ni­tion is that of taghairm—it’s an an­cient form of div­ina­tion in Scot­land, in which a per­son is sewn in­side the hide of a cow be­side a wa­ter­fall.’

Mr Smitheram’s dream is to be the first Bri­ton to re­tain the world cham­pi­onship, which will take place in Qatar later this year. ‘Ev­ery­body will be out to beat me in Au­gust, so it will be tough. Af­ter all, laugh­ter is only one let­ter away from slaugh­ter.’

‘I think be­ing in the right frame of mind is worth an ex­tra 50 points be­fore you start

Know your ygo from your zooid, al­though the cham­pion ad­vises against a fix­a­tion on high-value tiles

Brett Smitheram (right) hopes to be­come the first Bri­ton to re­tain the World Scrab­ble Cham­pi­onship, to be held in Qatar this year

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