It’s eight o’clock on a Wednesday evening in leafy south Co. Dublin. The tea has been poured, biscuits passed around and I’m about to get my ass handed to me in Scrabble by a woman old enough to be my grandmother. The popular board game is celebrating its 70th birthday this year. In that time, 100m sets have been sold in 29 languages across 121 countries.
But the Irish Scrabble-playing community are a small, tight knit bunch. Anne Lyng knows most of the faces. “One of our regulars is an inmate at the Central Mental Hospital” she chuckles. She rummages in the cloth bag, plucks out seven tiles and passes the bag across. “He’s very good,” she says. “He has them all playing up there now.” I mention that Scrabble is enjoying a resurgence of popularity of online. Anne looks surprised. “I wish more of these people would come to our tournaments,” she sighs.
Anne is a self-confessed Scrabble-addict. As befits a former Countdown quarter-finalist, she has an incredible talent for spotting anagrams. She turns her stack of letters around and asks what the biggest word I can see is. I see a five letter word: SAINT. Anne laughs, and with lightning speed shuffles the letters around on the rack to show me three seven letter words: INSTEAD, DETAINS and STAINED.
The game hasn’t even begun yet and already I’ve got a sinking feeling.
The first thing I cannot help noticing is the speed at which Anne and her friend Pauline (a retired teacher) play. Anne doesn’t even need to turn the board around to take her go. She can read it upside down. She mostly plays long words. Pauline specialises in shorter words laid atop other short words. This requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure words like dod, dzo and ny. Does she know what any of these words mean, I ask? She shakes her head.
My first effort (NEAR) scores a pathetic four points. Anne quickly throws down BARRIER for 77. I’m already a dot in her rear view mirror. My next word (JOTA for 22) is a modest improvement. Confidence duly boosted, I then go all out and try DEUX for 37. It may not strictly be a word in the English language. But Pauline has already gotten away with EL and LA, so I’m taking my chances here.
Pauline consults the Scrabble dictionary, but I can tell she already knows what’s coming. ‘Deux’ isn’t in there. I miss my turn.
The final score winds up being 279 points to Anne, 191 to Pauline and (a not completely disgraceful) 152 to myself. “All you need is a little practice” Anne assures me. “That’s all it takes.” We talk a bit longer. Anne says she sometimes fantasises about great words: CONQUERS for 221 is the best she’s ever managed, but it’s not the word she remembers most fondly.
“There was a D in the top row” she recalls, recreating the scenario on the empty board. “I had DISPEL and an R on my rack.” She took a chance, she says, and put down the word PIDDLERS – spanning the two red Treble Word Score squares. It earned her 177 points. Her opponent challenged, but ‘piddlers’ was in the Scrabble dictionary. “Can you imagine?” she says. “Piddlers…! Piddlers!?” She smiles fondly at the memory.
Some Scrabble terms…
CHALLENGE – Where one player calls into question the validity of an opponent’s word. Depending on how the Word Judge rules, either the challenger or their opponent loses a turn.
AMIWORD – A word which is often mistakenly assumed to be a misspelling of another, more common word (e.g. FIRN, BIBB, CONN, LONGE) deployed in ordered to draw unsuccessful challenges.
OLD MCDONALD – any rack that contains the letters EIEIO
Words that utilise all seven available tiles are known as BINGOS in the US. This has in turn spawned the terms:
MINGO – a particularly low scoring bingo, such as REALEST, which (even including the 50 point bonus awarded to all bingos) still scores less than 60 points.
PINGO – an abbreviation of phoney bingo, refers to any bingo which is successfully challenged.
HUMONGO – a bingo that score above 100 points, particularly one that covers two Triple Word Scores simultaneously.
Depending on which dictionary you use, the highest possible score on a single move in Scrabble is either:
CAZIQUES (meaning “native chiefs of West Indian aborigines”) for 392
QUIXOTRY for 365
There are Scrabble clubs in Dublin, Wexford, Cork and Galway.
[More senior citizens kicking my ass in board games here.]