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Scrabble wizards do battle in Belfast

By Rachel Quigley

Do you know what zyzzyva means? What about tziganes? No, neither do I, but they can give you a score of 234 on a Scrabble board.

The Northern Ireland Scrabble Championship takes place this weekend in Belfast and is an event not to be yawned at, according to Rik Kennedy. Rik recently represented Northern Ireland at the world championships in Malaysia, and finished 17th out of 108 of the world’s top players.

The championship, now in its fourth year, will take place at the Beechlawn Hotel, Dunmurry, where Rik and last year’s champion Paul Gallen, a solicitor from Belfast, will battle it out against competitors from Europe, the Republic and the rest of the UK to be crowned the 2010 champion.

Rik expects around 34 people to compete this year and believes it will be toughly contested.

He said: “The players put in a lot of groundwork training for these competitions. They spend hours every evening trawling through words just so they can spring one out that no one else will know.

“For example, I once saw the word sdeign, which means disdain. Not a lot of people know you can put s and d together, but it is in the dictionary.”

So do competitors spend their evenings learning every word in the English dictionary?

“Not exactly,” he laughed. “It’s not that nerdy. But a lot of people do use computer software which generates words from certain letters. Some players also claim to have read the official Scrabble dictionary. We certainly know a lot more words than people who don’t play.”

To illustrate, Rik said he knows about 140,000 words. The average person knows about 70,000. The Scrabble dictionary contains 270,000.

Despite any preconceptions people may have about Scrabble players, Rik insists they are not all bookworms.

He explained: “Most people tend to be from a scientific background, to be honest. Of course you need a good range of vocabulary, but a scientific mind is needed for the strategy. I’ve also worked with stock traders and solicitors. I even once played with a former international decathlete, so you get all sorts.

“It is a lot of fun and there’s a great social scene and I’ve made great friends through it. There have been some fall-outs in the past as it can get really tense at the competitions; you’ll get people with such attitudes and those that get quite angry. And don’t get me started on the cheating, it’s all very dramatic, actually.”

Tournament director and NISPA (Northern Ireland Scrabble Players Association) chairperson, Sarah-Jane Jamison said: “There are some very talented players coming. This year we have more than 30 players from all over taking part in the two-day event.

“Scrabble is one of the most popular board games in the world and its popularity is continuing to grow in the North.”

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