By a County Press reporter

Wednesday, May 28, 2003



I wish this was Monopoly! Charlotte Hofton with Ray Pyman, before an incredible stroke of luck (or skill?) brought her victory against a Scrabble legend in a later game. Picture by PETER BOAM.

ANYONE who has ever thrilled to the challenge of a row of letter tiles that comprises one Q and six vowels (including four Es but no U) will salute the memory of Cecil Nightingale whose death was recently announced in The Daily Telegraph.

Aged 86, Mr Nightingale was, in the words of the citation "active right to his death." That is admirable enough for an octogenarian but this chap went out in real style.

"Active right to his death, winning Scrabble the night before", is the full accolade and one of which the victorious Cecil should have been extremely proud.

The 46 members of the Ryde Scrabble Club would fully understand Mr Nightingale's wish for that final game. Everything comfortably tied up, with the last Z in place, perhaps combining on a triple-letter square with an existing ex to form zex (variant of zax, a chopper for trimming slates) and rearranging oejrna down from the Z to make zanjero, which as any well-informed scrabbler will tell you is a person who superintends the distribution of water in Latin-American irrigation canals.

Scrabble was developed from a game thought up in 1931 by an American architect called Alfred Mosher Butts. He named his version Lexico and after a lot of adaptations (and numerous rejections from manufacturers who thought it was a complete turkey) the Scrabble trademark was registered in 1948.

More than 100 million sets of the game, manufactured in 29 different languages, have since been sold in 121 countries, and Scrabble players include Joan Collins, Mel Gibson and the Queen.

When you play the game as keenly as members of the Ryde Scrabble Club do at their weekly gatherings, you enter the spooky world of esoteric lexicology, where the mere sight of an X is enough to throw you into a fever of excitement at the possibility of ix and xylol and xu. You haven't heard of Xylol? A very useful word (especially if the X is strategically placed on a triple-letter square), meaning a mixture of three isomeric hydrocarbons.

You don't actually have to know about isomeric hydrocarbons to play Scrabble, but it helps a great deal if you know that xylol is a word. At Ryde Scrabble Club they know thousands of words, all of them found in the list of the Official Scrabble Dictionary that starts at 'aa' and ends at 'zythums'.

Before I arrive at one of the club's regular gatherings (they meet every Monday evening in the Ryde Methodist Church Hall) I am feeling pretty confident. I have played Scrabble many times and I know really quite long words. Oh yes, I can even spell desiccated.

It takes very little time, alas, before I realise that I am hopelessly out of my depth. I am inadequate both in aa (a type of scoriaceous volcanic rock) and in zythums (a beer made by the ancient Egyptians) and, for that matter, in practically everything else that lurks in the peculiar lists of the Official Scrabble Dictionary.

Before we've even started to play, my self-admiration takes a severe knock when I am greeted by Ian Caws, chairman of the Ryde Scrabble Club. He leaves me in no doubt that the members are hot stuff and that, as a newcomer, I will be eased gently into proceedings. "We're the largest Scrabble club in the country," he says. "There are 46 members, and we have an A-league and a B-league. I think we'll put you in the B-league as it's your first time here."

Excusez-moi? The B-league? Is that suitable for a woman who can spell desiccated? It soon becomes quite plain that I am indeed not suited to the B-league. Unfortunately, there is no C-league in the Ryde Scrabble Club, or even a D-league, which might possibly be just about appropriate for my skills.

My first game is against a lady called Margaret Webb. She looks innocuous enough but as soon as she starts slapping down her tiles, I realise that she's a two-letter demon. If you want to win at Scrabble, you must know your two-letter words. I had never realised before I ran up against Margaret just what a lot of the little pests there are.

"Look," says Margaret, as she pops down a mere two tiles. "I've made QI there, and another QI there and an ID there, and that's 47 points." Qi? What is this qi, pray?

"You'll find it in the dictionary," says Margaret serenely, adding the latest addition to her massive score. And yes, she's right. Qi is in there, not to mention ug and ko and gi and gu and oh, for heaven's sake, there are 112 of them and Margaret is flinging them around like nobody's business.

In every other respect, Margaret is a perfectly delightful woman but when it comes to Scrabble, you can go off her pretty quickly.

Ian tells me that because I've lost, I must stay meekly in my place while Margaret strides off to further triumphs and he finds me my second opponent. This turns out to be a sweet little old lady called Elsie Tucker, who tells me that she is 86. Oh-ho, things are looking up. Beating Elsie will surely be a cinch.

I should have known better. Elsie is, of course, another two-letter belter. She knows her three-letter words, too. Here we go again with wo and yo and taj and yug and Elsie scribbling away for all she's worth on her score sheet and looking as sweet as old lavender while she wipes the floor with me.

"You were unfortunate to come up against Elsie," Ian tells me afterwards. "She's our B-league champion. Still, at least Peter Trembath isn't here tonight." The name of Trembath, it seems, is greatly revered in Scrabble circles. He's a retired Methodist minister, who lives in Bembridge but is feared all over the Island whenever he chooses to play Scrabble.

I am delighted that he is not in sight when I next try my luck at Scrabble. After my savaging at the hands of the Ryde club members, I think I have found just the thing. "Scrabble and afternoon tea with raffle" is the advertised event, a fund-raising initiative by IW Abbeyfield Extra Care. This sounds the kind of decorous occasion I need with no sign of Trembath.

Well, the afternoon tea is good, at any rate. I can highly recommend the Abbbeyfield sponges. Apart from that I'm on a loser. I don't win the raffle and I most certainly don't win at Scrabble.

I play against a woman called Polly Vergo, who intertwines her letters around the board unmercilessly and views my efforts with barely concealed contempt.

Fortified by Abbeyfield cake, I am nonetheless prepared to give this Scrabble lark one more go. I sign up for the monthly Scrabble meeting at the Cloisters church hall in Bembridge, an occasion presided over by Pam Watson-Lee, a very charming lady who cossets all her players like a mother hen.

I have two games at the Cloisters. First of all I am beaten by Ray Pyman, who tells me that he also enjoys ballroom dancing. He talks quite a lot about ballroom dancing, which is probably why I lose. I keep thinking I must make 'rhumba' out of my letters.

I'm just congratulating Ray after our game and am about to unclench my teeth when Mrs Watson-Lee introduces me to the Rev Peter Trembath. "I thought I'd put you two together," she trills. There's an air of expectancy in the room - rather as I imagine the atmosphere when the French revolutionaries went off to enjoy an afternoon's viewing at the guillotine.

Trembath looks me in the eye and is just about to wield the axe when to my astonishment I find I have redanmo in front of me. I can make roadmen. A double-word score and a 50-point bonus straight off.

I'm afraid the minister never really recovers after that. He tries to foil me with Himalyan bovines, but I've seen it all before. There's no stopping me after I've socked those roadmen to him.

He's very gracious in defeat but I know what he's really feeling inside, desiccated - that's the word.

* Snickersee, a sword-like knife.

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