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Saturday 19th February 2005

I attended my first ever official Scrabble tournament today. As you might you imagine it was a very glamorous affair. If I tell you that it was held in a church hall in New Malden and that free Maxwell House coffee (plus biscuits) was provided in the breaks by two kindly old ladies, then you might get a faint whiff of what kind of event it was. If the whiff smells of clothes that are not freshly laundered then you are getting closer than I imagined.
It made the British Library look like the most chic and fashionable location on earth. In terms of being a nerdathon it even gave the people who came to that Dr Who signing back in February (see here) a bit of a run for their money and maybe even came out top.
There's nothing wrong with being a nerd. You'll notice the one element that links the British Library, the Dr Who signing and the Scrabble tournament is me.
As you'll know I am a keen amateur player, but usually play against my Gameboy rather than real people (though a few of my opponents were possibly part cyborg and had no emotion chip installed so it wasn't all that different). I know all the 2 letter words that are allowed by the British dictionary to this game, but not many of the three letter ones. I knew I would be at a disadvantage, especially as this tournament used the international dictionary, which had extra 2 letter words that I didn't know. But I think I'm pretty good tactically at the game and my real skill is in balancing my rack and finding the much hallowed words that use up all your letters and give you a 50 point bonus.
I was playing in the C cateogary. This is made up of above average players who regularly play tournaments. There was a D rank below of good club players and above the Bs who are pretty exceptional and the As who have all been assimilated into the Scrabble version of the Borg, but instead of doing evil, they share a massive brain that knows all the available words. I talked to one guy who was modestly batting away plaudits from others who said he was a genius, but when he was asked if a certain obscure 4 letter word was allowed he immediately answered in the affirmative, without even a split seconds pause for consideration.
I was there with Diane and my friends Jonny and Alistair Macgowan from the credit card advert. It was very funny to see Diane, who is rather cool and sophisticated (yes, I know, I don't know what she's doing with me either - but you may remember that I live in the abyss between the norms and the Norms - see here) amongst a group of people in cardigans and slacks, of whom the average age would have been about 68 were it not for the prescence of a few randomly dotted super-brainy Midwitch Cuckoo-style 10 year olds of the kind that always humiliate the grown-ups when they appear on Countdown.
We had entered another world. It was a world that I liked. I liked it a lot. I also liked looking at Diane standing in the middle of it, and then laughing at this bizarre juxtaposition. There was also a smattering of the cool and sophisticated millionaire ladies who Scrabble who I mentioned in this entry. So it was an odd rag-bag of otherwise dispirate elements of society, all connected by this unusual pastime. I thought that it might make some kind of fantastic sit-com. If anyone would believe the things that I was seeing with my own eyes.
Everyone else had their own Scrabble board and clock and pads, but I'd come with nothing at all and was viewed with suspicion and maybe even disdain. I apologised to my opponents telling them that as I didn't know many of the 3 letter words I would probably challenge everything. This was advantageous in my second game when the lady I played put down at least three words that were not allowed - in tournaments you have to write the challenges down on a special form which are then checked out by the king of the Scrabble geeks at a special table. The paper then comes back with a tick or a cross on it and nothing more!
I won my first game against a soft spoken and fairly normal elderly man, quite easily. Early on I'd been too unsure to play "bearish" on a triple word score, the B also adding to the start of another word, so had played Cashier for fewer points (I had a blank, obviously, you idiot). He was a bit miffed that this was my first tournament. "I'm surprised you didn't start in the D group," he told me, "You might have won that..." He then checked himself and said, "You might do well in C though as well". I should hope so, old man. I have just destroyed you by over 50 points!
The next game was with the woman I challenged a lot, who was rather like Annette Crosbie from off of "One Foot in the Grave". It was her first tournament too and she'd narrowly won her first game (winners are put against winners in round two, so if you keep winning your games should get increasingly more difficult). I beat her by a reasonable margin too, after playing "dernier", which I thought was a kind of tights, but isn't. It actually means last, like in French, but still counts. Ha ha! Later I played "senates" which was less of a risk.
In my third game, against a mild, socially awkward and untalkative lady who liked to play the game with the board upside down (I suspected you was some kind of savant), I got quite a way ahead, thanks to some more Scrabbles, but at one point I was forced to play the word "cum". It felt bad enough making a nice older lady look at this word, but in her innocence she did not know what it meant and she challenged it. Which meant it had to be written down on a piece of paper and taken up to a nerdy man, who had to look it up and then put a tick by it. I felt ashamed of myself. Especially as it only scored me 7 points. This insipid looking woman came back at me like a terrier and in the end I only won by 19 points. I'd played three and won three before lunch. I was starting to think that the £50 first prize might be mine. Everyone was very impressed. Apart from Diane, who should know I'm a nerd because she's seen my show, but who evenso had a small amount of mote fallage coming from her eyes I noticed.
After lunch I faired less well. I made a couple of school boy errors in a game that I had made an astonishing comeback in and lost by 20 points. Stupidly I'd left a double word open nest to an a, when I should have known he definitely had an x at the end. It scored him 46. Imagine the riches that I'd thrown away on that blunder. This man was a very keen player and obviously thought of himself as a pro, because he had a proper digital clock and was very insistent that all rules were followed to the letter. He couldn't believe I dind't belong to a club, or that I didn't knoiw the three letter words. What was I doing here? Playing him, when we'd both won three. I wish I could have taken him. It was gutting because I should have won.
Without wanting to appear like a Scrabble nerd - oh dear, too late - I had done pretty well, given that in the first four games I had only had two blanks (you'd expect to get one a game and it's a massive advantage as it helps you get 7 letter words). In the next game the old lady I was playing got both blanks in two consecutive goes at the start and made two Scrabbles. I was over 150 behind right from the word go. Again I got right back to level pegging, but she won it in the end game and because I was forced to try a risky non-word she won by a comfortable 50. I wasn't so disappointed with this one because I'd done all I could. But the Scrabble first prize could not be mine any longer.
My final game was against the oldest woman I'd played. She was a very sweet lady called Dorothy who came from Wiltshire. Again she got both blanks early on and used them to play "lighters", but I knew I could take her and came back with "bolters" with the b also making "blighters" and then later "jaunted" which linked up with a couple of two letter words to also make "eft" and "kae" - a slight risk. But I could see from Dorothy's crushed old woman's face that they were both allowed. She didn't even challenge. Ha ha ha! I had ruined the day of an old lady. I felt like a god.
So I won 4, lost 2, which was probably a fair outcome as at least one of my victories was very close.
I didn't have time to hang around afterwards as I had to get to the show, but I am pretty sure the man who beat me by 20 went on to win the whole thing. So I'd done well to almost beat him.
On the drive home Jonny rang to tell me that I'd come 9th (he was 7th) and we'd both won £10 for being the highest placed new players. So that was a result. Except that it cost £13 to enter and I'd paid for Diane as it didn't feel right to charge her for having to endure this peculiar event. So I was £16 down on the day (doubtful then that I could make it as a Scrabble profesional either).
But I had entered probably a more dangerous world than that of internet gambling, one that will suck me in and destroy me and what vestiges of social aptitude that remains within me.
I suspected that their were more celebrants of St Skeletor's Day than St Valentine's in that strange smelling church hall in New Malden.
I'll definitely be going back for more.

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