WAR OF THE WORDS; Scrabble experts fight for UK Open title in Coventry ONCE the Scrabble game starts there is silence - apart from the sound of letters jingling and opponents swapping word scores. The six-day UK Open is a serious battle of the intellect. CATHERINE VONLEDEBUR meets some of the 60 Scrabble masterminds from across the globe who are competing for the pounds 10,000 prize in Coventry.
AMERICAN immigration lawyer Stephen Jay was picked to enter the first US National Scrabble championship in 1978 - and has taken part in every tournament since.
He says the "apex of his career so far" was coming fourth in the World Scrabble Championships in 2001 at The Venetian hotel, Las Vegas.
Stephen is one of three Americans competing in the fifth UK Open at the Quality Hotel, Birmingham Road, Allesley, in Coventry.
The 66-year-old from Miramar, Florida explained his attraction to Scrabble.
"It's the thrill of battling these powerful intellects," he said."I first started playing Scrabble while volunteering in the Peace Corps in Israel in the 1970s and noticed I was beating everyone.
"When I got back to the States I saw a notice for the Scrabble Tournament Miami and then was picked to play in the US national Scrabble Championship in 1978.
"At last year's UK Open I played the double world champion, Nigel Richards, twice at the start and won both games.
"I cannot express my favourite words - they are all X-rated!" Sixty competitors from around the world are competing for a prize fund worth pounds 10,000 over six days - and will play up to 63 games. They include Richards, a New-Zealander who now lives in Malaysia.
Physician Dr Ben Withers, aged 63, from Houston, Texas, started playing Scrabble when he was nine-years-old and has been playing competitively since 1994.
The occupational therapist said: "I have always loved all word games, especially Scrabble. It's an extremely complex game and I am a competitive person.
"My family are largely amused. My son gave me a T-shirt with: 'The Top 10 Reasons to Play Competitive Scrabble' printed on it. My favourite is Number One: 'Strive mightily to master a fiercely competitive endeavour, and rise from obscurity to bask in the glow of relative obscurity'. I love that! Out of 3,000 players in the US I am rated 50th!
"After you play for a while you know most of the players and are going to meet your friends.
"There are several online tools which make it easier to learn words and play faster. Quackle is a game that's better than any human competitor and it's free to download at www.quackle.org."
He met fellow US competitor Bob Linn a financial advisor from Washington DC on a 'Scrabble Cruise' to Costa Rica. "You do the normal cruise, and play competitive Scrabble."
Father-of-four Bob, aged 68, who works for the Royal Canadian Bank has been on 15 Scrabble cruises to 35 countries, including Malaysia, India, Russia and Croatia.
He said: "I am a game player. When I get up in the morning I play two hours of tennis. I work all day and when I come home I play Bridge. I enjoy the strategy playing. Scrabble is a strategy game. It's my second time in the UK. They made me feel very welcome and we get to play the best English players."
The UK Open Scrabble Championships were set up in 2008 by removals man Len Moir, aged 58, from Durham. This is the second year it is being held in Coventry.
Len, who plays competitive Scrabble himself, said: "January is a very quiet time for me in removals. I was unhappy with the other tournaments in the UK and devised a new format.
"We wanted a central location with good access to everywhere. We have a two day warm up-event and a four-day tournament. Each game lasts around an hour. We start at 8.30am and will play for ten or 11 hours."
As well as the US and Canada there are competitors from Malaysia, Malta, Poland, Ghana, Nigeria and Ireland.
For more information on entering the UK Open visit www.absp.org.uk. Any businesses interested in sponsoring the event should contact Len via The Quality Hotel at www.qualityhotelcoventry.com THE PLAYERS ...
PALLIATIVE care nurse Rick Blakeway, aged 45. from Kings Norton, Birmingham, is one of the few competitors from the West Midlands.
He is a member of the Sutton Coldfield Scrabble Club and got into competitive Scrabble after reading Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive ScrabblePlayers by former Wall Street Journal journalist Stefan Fatsis.
Rick said: "I always liked words and word games. Every round is like a puzzle. What l like is getting rid of all seven letters at the same time!" RETIRED secretary Barbara Goodban is the oldest Scrabble competitor in this year's UK Open.
The 80-year-old from Oxford said: "It's usually Ruby - she's 84 and a marvel! I have been playing for 50 years and started playing with my kids when they were young. I enjoy looking for words and you want to win."
AFTER graduating from Birmingham University, Georgie Burchell joined a Scrabble club.
The 25-year-old Alzheimer's Society charity fundraiser from Leighton Buzzard is the youngest player in the UK Open.
She said: "I've always enjoyed playing Scrabble with my mum at home.
"l love competitive Scrabble. Every game is different. There's a lot strategy involved. The UK Open can be very tense in the last stages of the tournament. It's not a knock-out, everyone plays."
TOP TIPS ...
DR BEN WITHERS: "You need three things - the ability to anagram, knowledge of the complete dictionary and the technical aspects of the game, which gets very complicated." BARBARA GOODBAN: "A good vocabulary."
RICK BLAKEWAY: "You need a good understanding of maths and probability."
GEORGIE BURCHELL: "Rather than your Poker face, you need a Scrabble face."
U.S. CHALLENGE: American competitors (left-right) Bob Linn, Dr Ben Withers, Stephen Jay NIGHT ON THE TILES: Players get down to business at the Quality Hotel in Allesley