Country Life's Jeremy Taylor took on world Scrabble champion Brett Smitheram. This is what he learned.
There are 161,293 reasons why you shouldn’t contemplate a game of Scrabble with Brett Smitheram.
That figure is the total number of eligible words between two and nine letters long in the game’s latest dictionary and, incredibly, Mr Smitheram’s brain has soaked up almost all of them. The 38-year-old admits that his biggest problem now is forgetting the redundant ones dropped from each new edition of Collins’s Official Scrabble Words.
‘There are actually 276,663 entries in the current dictionary, but that includes words up to 15 letters long,’ explains Mr Smitheram as we sit down to play. ‘Realistically, nobody would study beyond nine, although I have used maidservant and springtail.’
I’ve chosen Peter Harrington Rare Books in London for our game, mainly because the shop has an intimidating collection of dictionaries that could prove a distraction. Perhaps the 1755 edition of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language might be a suitable piquancy (triple-word score: 152).
However, I’m going to need more than luck.
Even a watching group of well-read staff is bamboozled as Mr Smitheram reveals his letter mixology: ‘I won last year’s title scoring 176 with braconid, which is a type of parasitic wasp.
‘My highest ever score was 302 with quatorze, but the world record for one word is caziques, played by Dr Karl Khoshnaw in 1982. It means Indian chief and, played across two triple-word scores, achieved 392.’
Mr Smitheram, an executive head-hunter from Chingford, Essex, rarely plays a game face to face, instead choosing high-calibre opponents online via a website called Mindsports Academy (www.mindsportsacademy.com). ‘I did play my girlfriend once, but I don’t think that was a good idea,’ he confesses.
‘She’s better at Survive, a game about escaping from a sinking island.’
There’s no need for my travel Scrabble set: my opponent has arrived laden with gear. He carries a circular, rotating board in a cymbal bag, plus a table-top timer and a dictionary in his backpack.
After setting the board out and filling a cloth bag with 100 lettered tiles, there’s just one more item to put on the table – his 2016 world-championship trophy. The glass statue normally has pride of place on his television and, as a statement of intent, it’s worth its weight in gold.
Scrabble isn’t much of a spectator sport, but I’m feeling quietly confident with my first set of seven letters: G, J, T, E, O, F, R, a healthy mix of vowels and consonants.
However, Mr Smitheram has first go and, within seconds, plays ebony.
I’m still shuffling my tiles as he starts the clock. Each player has 25 minutes of play in competitive Scrabble – my games at home are usually punctuated by cups of tea and dog walks, but, here, the pressure is really on.
As well as scoring, Mr Smitheram is also making a note of every letter played. This allows him to predict which tiles are left in the bag – or on my stand – at all times. Seeing the seconds ticking away, I follow with a modest jog.
It’s about as close as I get to parity of score as my opponent then unleashes a string of little-used words in rapid fire. Trig, stonefly, zooid, distrain and tardo, which, I’m informed, is an Australian slang word.
I can think of a few of those myself as Mr Smitheram places his final tiles on the board and adds up the scores. I’m beaten 220 to 443, although I’m not entirely sure he was giving it his full attention. After all, he once played 15 games simultaneously and won the lot.
Born in Truro, Cornwall, the champion player only took up the game in his mid teens. ‘I had the choice of chess or Scrabble at school lunchtime. I opted for the latter because a former pupil had become a grandmaster at chess and I would always have played in his shadow.’
He won his first tournament in Exeter, aged 17. ‘I was a bit of an unknown quantity back then and it paid off,’ reveals Mr Smitheram, who studied theology at university.
‘I played in my first world championships, in Melbourne, when I was 20 and was fourth at the start of the final day – then, jetlag kicked in.’
He believes that, in Scrabble, practice doesn’t always make perfect: ‘I spend a lot more time learning words on a computer programme. I’m very lucky because I had a photographic memory when I was younger, so my vocabulary grew rapidly.
‘Scrabble is a mind sport and it’s vital to approach each game with a positive attitude. I think being in the right frame of mind is worth an extra 50 points before you even start.’
Top players don’t fixate on high-value tiles such as J, Z, X and Q, he says, because they can prove a distraction. ‘Use them as quickly as possible,’ he advises. ‘And try not to play a defensive game just to block your opponent’s next move.’
I notice that Mr Smitheram has a distracting habit of squeezing the letter bag as the game approaches conclusion – this practice is within the rules and allows a player to confirm the number of letters left in play.
Winning the 2016 world championship in Lille, France, netted the man sitting opposite me €7,000, but he claims there is little financial gain after paying for travel and hotel expenses. ‘I’d love to see Scrabble grow, but more prize money is needed,’ he asserts. ‘All I’m rich in is words.’
Does he have any favourites? ‘Zyzzyva is a type of tropical weevil; qiviut is the down of an Arctic muskox. The best word definition is that of taghairm – it’s an ancient form of divination in Scotland, in which a person is sewn inside the hide of a cow beside a waterfall.’
Mr Smitheram’s dream is to be the first Briton to retain the world championship, which will take place in Qatar later this year. ‘Everybody will be out to beat me in August, so it will be tough,’ he admits.
‘After all, laughter is only one letter away from slaughter.’
Scrabble: From the Great Depression to the greatest word game in the world
The greatest word game on Earth was the brainchild of American architect Alfred Mosher Butt. Having lost his job in 1931, during the Great Depression, he devised Lexiko, manufacturing the game himself and selling it to his friends.
In 1938, he turned it into a crossword-style challenge using a board. It was finally copyrighted as Scrabble in 1948 and began to sell in larger numbers.
The game took off in 1952, when the chairman of Macy’s played the game. He introduced it into his stores and sales soared from 2,413 in 1949 to almost four million in 1953.
Scrabble fever followed, with more than 150 million sets produced in 33 languages.
It’s estimated that at least 30,000 games are started every hour and there are more than a million missing tiles.
The highest ever score achieved in a single game was 830, by carpenter Michael Cresta.