Play nice

My foolhardy attempt to become Scrabble World Champion – in Spanish

Play Nice Scrabble Daniel Tunnard
Portrait by  José Campos | image by TOPIA

When British author Daniel Tunnard challenged a Scrabble champion to a few games in 2015, little did he know he would end up representing Argentina at the World Cup

Some years ago I was trying to write a novel about Scrabble champions. I decided that the best way to write a novel about Scrabble champions was to become a Scrabble champion myself.

Consequently, I represented Argentina, where I lived at the time, at three Scrabble World Cups, in Spanish. In terms of good things that you can do in your life – not good in the sense of doing other people good, God forbid, just good for yourself – playing in a Scrabble world championship is right up there with yoga and eating too many biscuits.

(“There’s a Scrabble World Cup!?”, you gasp in innocent ignorance. Yes three, in English, French and Spanish. Top prize in English: $50,000. Top prize in Spanish: er, $3,000.)

A for Accidental

My career as a competitive Scrabble player in Spanish was quite accidental.

It must have been in the late 2000s that I first read the phrase “competitive Scrabble,” and something in my brain lit up. I’d been playing Scrabble since my Nanna Clare taught me in the 80s, in between afternoon Australian soaps and Countdown, and I’d been competitive, particularly in the sense of “competing to see who the cleverest child is,” for as long as anybody could regrettably recall. Competitive Scrabble, I got the feeling, could well be my “thing.”

At first my only willing competitors were my mum and my less rebellious sisters. These were uneventful afternoons, tinged with the knowledge that other kids my age were doing cooler stuff, and yet with their own thrilling milestones: my first bingo, laying down a word using all seven tiles on my rack (aged eight years old, I had sneaked the blank out of the bag while Mum went to the toilet; it felt bad, a hollow victory; I didn’t do that again); the time Mum brought home a special deluxe set, with revolving board and list of valid 2-letter words, one of the most exciting additions to any 1990s home, unless you were the kind of rich family who had a CD player and a tape-to-tape recorder; a rare victory for my mum, playing SHITTING on not one but two triple word score squares for what is known in the game as, you guessed it, a triple-triple (or a “coast-to-coast”, as they say in Nigeria.) (Scrabble is huge in Nigeria.) But Scrabble was just a game we played occasionally and then, when I moved to Buenos Aires at the end of the 90s, not at all.

A Scrabble-free decade passed.

In 2009, my wife tired of my beating her at TEG, the Argentine version of the board game Risk (Argentines, who claim all things Argentine are superior, claim TEG is superior, perhaps unsurprisingly), and for a weekend in the Tigre Delta insisted we take a tiny Travel Scrabble set a friend had left in a drawer in my home nine years earlier (how it shames me now that there was a Scrabble set in my home for nine years and I didn’t play once.) There were tiles missing. Other tiles fell from the table and into the cracks in the wooden deck. They were magnetic tiles, but still. It wasn’t the most memorable of games. But it was then that I had an idea for a novel about Scrabble. But not just any novel about Scrabble. A Scrabble novel with intrigue, romance, murder, betrayal; a Scrabble novel that would expose the dark heart of the Scrabble mafia, or Scrafia.  Like Goodfellas, but with a more ambitious vocabulary. What a great idea, I thought. Couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to write the thing.

Through a chance acquaintance (my wife’s aunt knows her sister) I got to play three games against 2004 World Champion (in Spanish), Claudia Amaral. Having held the upper hand against my mother and sisters for so long, I naively thought I might at least win one out of three against one of the best players in the world. She gave me such a hiding that I didn’t touch a Scrabble board for nine months. But the Scrabble novel stayed in my head, wanting to be written, with no idea of how to go about writing it. So I said I’d play “a few games” of competitive Scrabble. Just a couple, you know, to get a feel for it, ensure literary authenticity. I’m sure many Scrabble careers have started out with such an innocent proposition.

(Is there anything more pretentious than referring to excessively playing a given board game as a “career”? Yes, but still. There must be few people who speak of their Monopoly career, their Connect 4 career, their Hungry Hippos career, though the world is still waiting for that one great Hungry Hippos novel.)

(Is Scrabble a sport? Yes. No. Kind of. It depends on whether you live in a country where the pertinent governmental body has declared it a sport, which apparently is all it takes. Nigeria is one. I think Malaysia might be another. Possibly Uruguay. It doesn’t matter. It’s a sport if you want it to be. It’s a bit like South American CIA coup puppets self-proclaiming themselves interim president, only without all the bibles and tear gas. It isn’t like there’s an international panel of retired sports stars – Martina Navratilova, Zinedine Zidane, Nadia Comaneci – sitting up late into the night like Booker Prize judges, arguing the toss over whether to declare the board game Risk a sport or downgrade it to that most humiliating of statuses, “just a game.”)

I took a five-hour bus ride to Buenos Aires and played my first competitive Scrabble games in the C division of the Club Metropolitano, in a foreign language. When you, the novice Scrabble player, sit down to play your first, second, third competitive game, all the words disappear from your head. Not all the words, that would be preposterous. You can still remember cap, bar, din, quid, zoo, some swear words, like a stroke victim struggling to give a lecture on a one-time specialist subject. When I finally managed to play a bingo, already 150 points adrift of glory, my opponent sarcastically congratulated me for getting down a word with more than three letters. (She was French, to compound matters.) I lost that game. And the next one. And the one after that. Then there was lunch. Then I lost another game.

And then I won one! With what is known in the trade as a “walk-off bingo,” using all seven letters in my final play.

My octogenarian victim, Marta, had a look of utter shock on her face for the rest of the afternoon, as if she’d been slapped by an insolent child. I lost the last game, but I left the Club Metropolitano euphoric, despite being all but thoroughly defeated, a huge smile on my face at the discovery of this new obsession. I did the 400-mile round trip again the next month, won the three morning games, and got promoted to the B division. Within a year, I’d made it into the A. My Scrabble career was on the rise. And then I went to the World Cup.

I had not qualified for the World Cup, but it was only a 20-hour coach ride to Asunción, the Paraguayan capital, so I thought what the hell. I played in the preliminary Copa Extraordinaria and qualified with a match to spare. Extraordinary. Three-time world champion and all-round nice chap Luis Pichiocchi shook my hand and congratulated me. I almost cried from the intense pride at my own achievement. I finished thirtieth in the world at that tournament. But the one sensation that stays with me is sitting in a room of 90 Scrabble players sitting at 45 Scrabble boards at the start of another round (there are 24 in a World Cup) and contemplating the wonder of what we were doing, taking a whole week out of our lives for the pure joy of playing Scrabble against strangers and friends from all over the Spanish-speaking world. Not having to think about anything else. You have one job, one responsibility, and that is to play Scrabble. A Scrabblecation is the best vacation. It’s a wonderful escape.

A for Addiction

At my second World Cup, in Mexico, I placed thirteenth. In the world. Me! I was one win from making the Top 10, two wins from coming third. I beat three world champions. Even my Scrabble-hating wife got excited. I don’t for the life of me know how I did it, or how to repeat it. There are tournaments where we Scrabble players are suddenly blessed with deep concentration, the ability to find the most obscure words that we’d never normally find, a little bit more luck drawing random tiles from the bag than our opponent. Was that tournament just a wild fluke? Shush now, keep the dream alive. If I could do it then, I kid myself, surely I can do it again. Thus are gaming addictions born.

I’ve always been aware this is tremendously nerdy, even for me, a one-time trainspotting Queen fanatic with a side line in ornithology who wrote a book about buses. I wish I could have dedicated the last four years of my life to something cooler. Taken up the double bass. Learned to make ravioli like an Italian chef. Restored a vintage Mercedes W123 coupe. Saved the elephants. But no. I have spent an hour a day for the last three years writing out lists of words, trying to remember them, failing to remember them.

And the thing about the nerdiness is that I didn’t mean to be this nerdy, or at least, I didn’t mean to come across as this nerdy.

“What’s Daniel up to?”
“Oh, he’s taking all the buses in Buenos Aires and writing a book about it.”
“Oh, that sounds cool.”

“What’s Daniel up to?”
“Oh, he’s taking all the trains on the country’s neglected rail network and writing a book about it.”
“OK, he has a weird crush on Argentine public transport.”

“What’s Daniel up to?”
“Oh, haven’t you heard? So sad. He’s spent the last three years playing Scrabble, but like spending lots of money to travel all over Latin America to play Scrabble against other Scrabble nerds.”
“Oh my God, what a terrible shame. His poor wife.”

Part of me tells me that I must quit this habit.

That after the next world cup, that’s that, I’m getting the Scrabble monkey off my back, for the sake of my wallet, for the sake of my reputation, for the sake of a wife whose face becomes contorted with rage when I tell her I’m spending what some might consider an excessive sum to go to Peru for a weekend to play a board game for grannies. But then another part of me, a part I cannot suppress no matter how hard I try, pipes up “No!” I must devote myself to becoming Scrabble World Champion in Spanish, for no other good reason than it seems to be the one thing I’m half good at; and when you find something you’re good at, something that feels good and brings good to many others (kind of), you want to carry on doing it.

What’s so good about this?

If there are two things that the pandemic taught us it’s that 1) board games are great and 2) so is spending time with other people. This was a bit of a problem for those of us who play board games with other people, as in-person tournaments were abandoned and we were forced online with the novices and the cheats. Now, as competitive Scrabble undusts its boards and sprays its tiles with sanitiser, we return to the gaming community with a deeper sense of value in that same community. 

Wanna cheat at Spanish Scrabble? Go here. Everyone else does.

Meet the writer

Daniel Tunnard is a British writer and translator who spent half his life in Argentina and has now moved back to Stockport, because people make flawed decisions. He took all the buses in Buenos Aires and wrote a book about it in Spanish. Failing to learn from his mistakes, he took all the trains in Argentina and wrote a book about that, in Spanish. Then he wrote a bilingual novel about Scrabble champions, but sensibly translated the Spanish bits into English and ESCAPES was published by Unnamed Press in 2020. He doesn’t know what to do with himself now. Follow @DanielTunnard.

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