Scrab­bling to be­come the UK’s top word slinger

Sunday Herald - - NEWS - BY PETER SWIN­DON * Su­bitize is the abil­ity to “see” a small num­ber of ob­jects and know how many there are with­out count­ing.

THEY are the Scrab­ble word­smiths who know that V means vic­tory, have minded their Ps and Qs (both good-scor­ing let­ters), and used their Ss wisely to put Scot­land on the gaming map. And while the board game may give some peo­ple Zzzzs, five play­ers from north of the Bor­der would beg to dif­fer af­ter they came through gru­elling qual­i­fy­ing rounds against com­peti­tors from across the UK to reach this year’s na­tional cham­pi­onship fi­nals.

The five qualified from a field of 300 to en­sure Scot­land is well rep­re­sented at the pres­ti­gious tour­na­ment or­gan­ised by the re­spected As­so­ci­a­tion of Bri­tish Scrab­ble Play­ers. The tour­na­ment will be de­cided by a marathon 17 rounds of Scrab­ble over two days in Black­burn this week­end. The player who wins the most games will be crowned the UK na­tional cham­pion.

There are more than 20 Scrab­ble clubs in Scot­land – from Shet­land in the far north to Ste­wartry near Dum­fries in the south – but the last Scot­tish win­ner of the na­tional cham­pi­onship was Al­lan Sim­mons in 2008. The game is sold in 121 coun­tries, more than 150 mil­lion sets have been sold world­wide and half of Bri­tish homes have a Scrab­ble set.

Ed­in­burgh-based James Squires, 33, is a se­ri­ous contender for the tro­phy and top prize of £1,000 this year, hav­ing rep­re­sented Scot­land at the world cham­pi­onship in 2015. His high­est score in a com­pet­i­tive game is 621 and he av­er­ages 430 points per game. He said: “I’ve been play­ing com­pet­i­tively for about eight years, but am no stranger to word games. I was – and be­lieve still am – the youngest con­tes­tant to have ap­peared on TV’s Count­down, back in 1992, when I was eight.” Squires ad­mits he can be ob­ses­sive about the game, prac­tic­ing twice a week and study­ing let­ter com­bi­na­tions. He said: “My wife, Tracey, has to en­dure my long-winded ex­pla­na­tions of my Scrab­ble suc­cesses and fail­ures but I en­joy the chal­lenge of the game – the ana­grams, the strat­egy and the com­bi­na­tion of skill and luck – but also the camaraderie.”

Fel­low com­peti­tor Stu Hark­ness, a 30-year-old math­e­mat­ics teacher from Tweed­bank in the Bor­ders, pic­tured right, is tak­ing his fourth tilt at the ti­tle af­ter com­ing ag­o­nis­ingly close last year. “I fin­ished 26th out of 52 af­ter hav­ing been tied for sec­ond place overnight,” he said.

His high­est game score this year is 639 points, achieved in only 12 scor­ing moves. “I’ve had a re­ally suc­cess­ful year so far in tour­na­ment play and I’d love to keep that go­ing with a top 10 fin­ish this week­end, but that’s be­ing very op­ti­mistic,” he added. “I’m aim­ing for 10 wins and a few sweet moves.”

Some younger com­peti­tors prac­tice on­line but na­tional cham­pi­onship fi­nal­ist Amy Byrne is a purist. She said: “I much pre­fer the face-to-face board game. That is when you are test­ing your­self against an­other player and is very ex­cit­ing.”

How­ever, she is pes­simistic about her chances in this week­end’s tour­na­ment be­cause she doesn’t prac­tice as of­ten as she used to. Byrne said: “My late hus­band was a very keen player and we could play three to four hours a day when not work­ing. Nowa­days I play about eight to 10 hours a week on av­er­age.”

Chris Cum­mins, 34, a lec­turer in lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, was also self-dep­re­cat­ing. He said: “This is only the sec­ond time I’ve qualified for the fi­nals, al­though it be­came a lot eas­ier a cou­ple of years ago, so that doesn’t count for much.” Cum­mins uses his knowl­edge of lan­guage to come up with ob­scure words which can gen­er­ate huge scores. He added: “My best score in rated play was about 600 points. For a sin­gle turn, su­bitize* for 227.” This week­end’s tour­na­ment is or­gan­ised by Craig Beev­ers, who was World Scrab­ble Cham­pion in 2014. Scrab­ble fans can fol­low the progress of the Scot­tish con­tin­gent on the Bri­tish Scrab­ble Face­book page. Beev­ers added: “There will also be live-stream­ing video cov­er­age of the top ta­ble game for all 17 rounds, with ex­pert com­men­tary.”

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