Simon Page

SIMON PAGE has developed a new love of Scrabble. COOL.

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All things being equal, you probably don’t have a favourite fact about Scrabble.

Neither did I. Until recently.

It all started when, after having made as much headway on the Saturday crossword as seemed likely, my eyes drifted over the rest of the puzzle pages. I spotted The Times’ Scrabble column, an area of the paper that I’d hitherto never seen. Quite understandably, this fact jumped out at me:

“The highest ever score draw in competitive or tournament Scrabble is 502-502.”

My mind was blown.

Firstly, 502 is a colossal score by anyone’s standards. I consider myself a decent Scrabble player, and I reckon getting above 150 is pretty good going. 502 is just plain nuts.

Secondly, it was a TIE?! Both players racked frankly enormous totals of above 500 and still drew. The sheer improbability of them both ending up on exactly the same massive score is mind-boggling. I doubt I could even engineer this kind of situation by playing against myself.

Also, imagine the dismay of the last guy to play as he realises that the only move left to him is to make “CAT”, adding a frustratingly insufficient three points to his total of 499, and leaving both of them to bewilderingly put the tiles back in preparation for a rematch. Madness.

Facts are funny things. After having read such a peach, most people go through a similar routine:

Firstly, they savour the fact. The fact is re read, perhaps with a bemused smile, a disbelieving shake of the head, even a faint chuckle. Then, doubt starts to creep in and the fact’s veracity is checked. Next they regale those on hand with said fact: this could be anyone from a close friend to a stranger on a train.

And finally, they start to really think about the fact; really analyse it. I tried to imagine the moment when the crowd (I imagine Scrabble matches pull a decent audience) started to realise what they were about to witness. Scrabble veterans share knowing smiles. Rookies audibly gasp. Commentators fall silent. A huge scoring draw is on the cards.

Illustration by Esther Harding

Understandably, when Saturday came around again, I was pretty excited about the morning papers. Disregarding Syria and the economy, I headed straight for the puzzle pages, and was rewarded with the following gem:

“There are 20 legally playable words in the game of Scrabble which contain no vowels and no ‘Y’.”

Now, every single person I that have told this story to has had roughly the same response as I did upon encountering this information.

“Really? Okay, hang on, how about… um… ‘sky’? Oh wait, no ‘Y’s. OK, erm ‘rhythm’? Nope. Err…”

I wasted twenty minutes trying to think of one single word. I needn’t have bothered. Every one of these words is stupid.

The list contains:

“NTH” (as in Nth)

“BRR” (as in cold)

“BRRR” (as in really cold)

“CWM” (a Welsh word for a valley. Actually, probably most of the Welsh language falls into this category. ‘No vowels’ is a strong suit for the Welsh. In Welsh Scrabble, “dd” counts as one letter. Seriously).

“TSKTSKS” (as in the plural of the telling-off noise)

and “PHPHT” (which I honestly can’t find a definition for)

As you can see, the guys making the Official Scrabble Dictionary have let some pretty questionable stuff slip through the net. Heck, some of this stuff just looks like the text from those anti-spam, human-verification boxes on web forms.

However, that’s certainly not going to stop me from using them next time I get stuck with a fistful of consonants. I mean, presumably this is how people get scores of over 500. That was the epiphany. The point at which I ceased to be a Scrabble dilettante who liked the odd game now and then and became a serious “word nerd”.

But, I’m not alone. Having since spoken to a lot of people (and I mean A LOT of people) about this stuff, I have quickly realised that almost everyone has a Scrabble story to tell – their very own lexical fisherman’s tale: their highest scoring word; their most unusual word; the time they played a “Z” on a triple letter score. All of them proud moments. All of them interesting. All of them passionately told. And, crucially, none of them including the “word” phpht.