The name of Alfred Mosher Butts might not mean much to you, but the Architect, born today in 1899 has been the direct cause of family feuds, inspired moments of verbal dexterity and genuine curiosity about language since 1938. Perhaps however if I mix in images of red, pink, blue and green squares? A 15 x 15 grid? A howl of, “Ok then, USE IT IN A SENTENCE!!”?
You got it, we’re talking Scrabble.
Whether it’s something that you break out at Christmas when the repeats on TV are too much to bear; something you habitually play online while commuting to work or having that end-of-day cup of tea; or something that you actively pursue excellence in (I’m passionate about its status as a mindsport and just as good for your mind as tennis is for your body, and am Scrabble ambassador for Mindsports Academy) everyone has an opinion about (and often a warm place in their heart for) the game.
I first started playing Scrabble at the age of 16. I’d never played it at all until then. First, in a small club at school, I began to realise that there was much more to it than just SHEEP or *PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS *(yes, I was one of those kids) I then moved onto playing at local clubs around Cornwall, with a huge mix of personalities and ages, before taking the leap (because someone said I should) to my first actual, live tournament in 1996. Now, this was really before the days you could play regularly online (Wow. My teenage years are ancient history…) so I had to satisfy my craving for games by playing Real Live People. This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind as a shy and retiring teenager. In fact, when I got cornered by a certain producer of a certain well known words-and-numbers-game on TV, I knew he was lying when he said he’d heard I was really keen to be televised to tens of thousands. Scrabble was all just words and books, played and read in a room, where the only noise was the click of tiles and totting up of points…wasn’t it? Well yes, that was a part of it, but it’s so much more!
Soon I found myself travelling the globe to play. Melbourne. Las Vegas. Doncaster. Singapore. All the glitziest places on the world were included in my Scrabble itinerary. I met people from every cultural background, every belief system, all brought together by a singular love of the game. I came out of my shell and turned into a travel addict who loves meeting new people.
Of course, Scrabble success does come with a lot of work – my Collins Scrabble Words is as precious to me as Roger Federer’s tennis racket is to him (in fact, I probably own every Scrabble book Collins has published!) – and I have to study and practice a lot to keep at my peak. But the rewards and opportunities it has offered me have been incredible.
So here I sit writing this as World Scrabble Champion. Happy Birthday Alfred, it’s National Scrabble Day and without it I wouldn’t be the man I am today.
And here are 5 tips that got me to where I am (!)
1) Focus on your own potential. Players worry too much about what their opponents will do. Often, maximising your own score will do more for you than trying to get in their way early on
2) Value the pointless. BLANKS ARE THE BEST TILES. A blank is worth 50 points, because it almost guarantees you’ll be able to play all your letters for that 50 point bonus. Love them. Look after them. Don’t squander them for 20.
3) Know your twos. QI can score you 60+ points on a triple letter score if you hit it in both directions, and can dump the worst tile (yes…Q is THE WORST TILE) which leads me to…
4) Don’t hoard the Q, and don’t hold onto U’s in case you get it. Q and U are bad tiles and get in the way of the rest of your game (free tip: learn QAT and QADI/QAID to solve your Q woes)
5) Never give up. I was 176 points behind in the 2nd game of the World Championship final. With just 6 moves to go, I came back and won. Magic.
By Brett Smitheram
World Scrabble Champion