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Post  eddie Fri Nov 11, 2011 11:54 am

Scrabble: the art of the two-letter word

Da, Ax, Qi? The newly crowned UK Scrabble champion says the secret is knowing words exist, not what they mean

Stephen Moss, Wednesday 9 November 2011 21.00 GMT

Scrabble Wayne-Kelly-UK-Scrabble-c-007
UK Scrabble champion Wayne Kelly checks a word while playing against Stephen Moss. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

Wayne Kelly is on a mobile in his hotel lobby doing his umpteenth interview when I arrive. He has just won the UK Scrabble championship, and everyone wants a word – ideally one with a Q on a triple-letter score. "I knew it would be a bit mad, but I didn't realise how mad," he says. "I can see why famous people seem terrible in interviews. If they're doing it day in, day out it must drive them crazy."

I want a word, too. In fact, lots of words. I've challenged Kelly to a game, and come along with my dusty Scrabble set (last used around Christmas 1992) and the Collins Scrabble Dictionary. He immediately tells me the dictionary I have brought is useless: it may be OK for fun family Scrabble but it is hopeless for the pros, who use computerised word lists with far more words than appear in this dictionary. This will be significant when we come to play later.

What is the secret of good Scrabble, I ask him before we start playing. Knowing a lot of words, of course, but he does not reckon that is the most important factor. "The key thing is to look at each move as a puzzle," he says. "People struggle at the start to play words parallel to one another because they don't know a lot of two- and three-letter words. They are crucial in Scrabble – words like qi, zo and ee."

As it happens, Kelly knows what these words mean. Qi is the Chinese life force; zo is a cross between a yak and a cow; and ee is a Scottish variant of eyes. Because Scrabble players have traditionally used The Chambers Dictionary, which hails from Edinburgh, there are a lot of obscure Scottish words in Scrabble. But it quickly becomes apparent that knowing the definition is not crucial to top Scrabblers. All that matters is that the word exists and is in whichever dictionary you have agreed will govern the game. Scrabble is a mathematical puzzle, not an exercise in philology or an arcane pursuit for lovers of literature. Aesthetics don't count.

When we eventually play, I have what I consider some aesthetic triumphs – notably when I make rime and tome on the same go – but they score only modestly. "You're not really interested in the meaning of words, are you?" I say accusingly. "Not especially, no," admits Kelly. "The meanings all blur into one. You think is it a coin from such and such a place or a feathered headdress?" It's hard enough to remember the words, he says, let alone the definitions.

Kelly, who is 37 and lives in Warrington where he works in local government, is a lifelong lover of puzzles, and was runner-up on Countdown in 1994. He started playing Scrabble seriously in the mid-90s when he joined his local Scrabble club. He is now the top player in the north of England, and a panjandrum at the Association of British Scrabble Players, which governs the competitive game in the UK. I am unlikely to present much of a challenge, but I am ahead after one go. He plays Biped for 26 and I reply with Jap – which I am surprised to discover is acceptable – for 28. I feel like suggesting we stop now so I can declare myself British champion.

The next couple of turns put me in my place. Kelly makes Jo, Ax and Boxer with one play for 49; I feebly reply with Net for 18; and then my opponent makes If, Feral, Da and Jape on his next go for 29. But what on earth do these words mean? Jo is a sweetheart and Da a heavy Burmese knife, he tells me later when he has access to his computerised word lists. He is now 50 points ahead and, as the board becomes blocked and I accumulate three hard-to-use Is, things are getting difficult. I play Cavern for 22 – a nice word, I tell myself – but Kelly then produces the coup de grace. He makes Goosier, netting a 50-point bonus for getting rid of all his letters and scoring 80 just on that turn. Goosier is not in the Collins dictionary, but he assures me it is a word and that he has used it in competitions before. He says it is a comparative derived from goosy. I feel extremely hard done by and start to wonder about the linguistic standards of competitive Scrabble.

It is a procession after that. He makes Veldt on a triple-word score, then gets rid of all his letters again for another 50-point bonus when he makes Laicised, which he tells me means to remove from clerical control. I fret about being stuck with the Q, but eventually manage to make Qua, which is allowable despite its Latinate associations. The final score is 493 to 264. My goose has well and truly been cooked; indeed, it couldn't get much goosier.

Kelly says 400 is a reasonable game total, and that you should be looking to score at least 25 on each go. Clearly, I have fallen well short of that, but I like to feel I've won the aesthetic war. Kelly will now be aiming for the world championship, which was recently won for the second time by New Zealand Scrabble legend Nigel Richards. I, meanwhile, will be buying a bigger dictionary, and trying to memorise all those ludicrous two-letter words.
The Gap Minder

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