Scrabbling to become the UK’s top word slinger
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.”