Why the best Scrabble players in the world are Thais who don't speak English

In times of recession, that's a waste of an S.

In times of recession, that's a waste of an S.

The world of Scrabble is AGOG – score 24 points if you have one G on a double-letter square and the whole word on a triple-word score; give up playing if you used it without any multipliers. The word TE has just been added to the revised edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

For Scrabble addicts, this is the HOLY – H on a triple-letter square to score 18, of course – grail.

“Being able to hook an E underneath T means that I can play far more words,” says Robin Pollock Daniel, a Canadian expert. “I call those the amino acids of Scrabble. The more two-letter words, the more possibilities a word will fit.”

TE, as you will know, is a variant of TI, the seventh tone on the musical scale. It joins AA, AG, AI, AL, EL, ES, FY, KI, KO, KY, MI, MM, MU, NU, OE, PE, XI, XU, YU and ZA on the approved list, although you could go through several lifetimes and never hear this motley collection of abbreviations, archaisms and Greek and Hebrew letters in everyday speech. 

These may be the amino acids of the quasi-professional Scrabble player’s tragically circumscribed life, but they're not real words. Can you define one?

Daniel, the highest-rated female player in North America (and something of a celebrity in Canada), gave the game away in an interview with the Toronto Star in 2012. “Words are involved, but to me at least it’s more about maths... Simply learning words is a big key. You don’t have to know what the word means, but you do have to know that it’s an acceptable configuration.”

Scrabble isn't for people who love words and language; it’s for people who like patterns. The secret isn't to make an inspiring word. LAMBENT, LAGOON and LISSOM – what a waste of an S – won’t get you very far in Scrabble. Ridiculous little words used in combination on high-scoring squares will. 

As Daniel says, it’s a spatial game more than a semantic one, which explains why many of the world’s top players hail from Thailand. They concentrate on structures rather than meanings. Indeed, it's been argued that speaking English is a disadvantage in top-flight Scrabble, where the true champion relies on a battery of memorised pseudo-words.

In 2011, I played the then British Scrabble champion Wayne Kelly. He gave me two pieces of advice: treat each move as a puzzle, and learn lots of obscure two-letter words. He singled out QI (the Chinese life force), ZO (a cross between a yak and a cow) and EE (a Scots variant of eye) as especially helpful.

Our game was a travesty. I made some beautiful words, including RIME and TOME on the same go; had the scoring been based on artistic impression, I would have been in with a chance. But I was overwhelmed by those killer fillers – JO (a sweetheart), DA (a heavy Burmese knife), AX (a variant of AXE) – that enabled him to make half a dozen words at the same time. I lost by almost 250 points.

Kelly admitted that sometimes he has only a hazy idea of what a word means. It probably sounds like sour grapes, but doesn’t that defeat the object of a word-based game? Shouldn’t a condition be that you have to know the definition? Better still, shouldn’t it be a word in common currency, so ruling out ZAX (a hatchet used for cutting slates), HOWF (an old Scots term for pub) and QIVIUT (Inuit for the wool of the musk ox)?

I’m very happy for QIVIUT to be used in the Inuit edition of Scrabble, which will probably have an abundance of Qs but where Zs really will be the black spot. Can you think of an Inuit word with a Z? And if two 19th-century Scots are playing, by all means let them bandy archaisms in their local howf.

But the rest of us should play with the language we actually use – and with a respected but concise standard dictionary as arbiter. While we’re at it, let’s ban those wretched two-letter words. Take an AX, or even a ZAX, to them. – Guardian News & Media

Lifestyle , Leisure , games , Scrabble , two letter words