How Scrabble remains more addictive than cocaine and champagne
Janet Street-Porter once described Scrabble as more addictive than cocaine and champagne.
The colourful broadcaster is one of many celebrity fans of the board game, a list that includes Keanu Reeves, Madonna, Jonathan Ross, the Queen, Sharon Stone and Charles Saatchi.
With an estimated 30,000 games starting around the world every hour, it is the word puzzle that refuses to go out of fashion. While other board games come and go, Scrabble forges ahead, steadily selling two and a half million sets every year.
And with the festive season in full swing, the 84-year-old game will surely feature on thousands of Christmas shopping lists in the coming weeks, appealing as it does to both young and old.
Among its biggest fans are a group which meets every month at Blackheath Library in Rowley Regis, to pit their wits against each other and themselves.
The mainly elderly members say it keeps their brains active and they enjoy the social aspect of club afternoons.
Sheila Brueton, 86, a retired financial director, said: "One of the reasons I love Scrabble is because it's so different from working with numbers as I did in my job, although I also love Rummy Club, a numbers game. I played for four hours yesterday.
"I find Scrabble keeps the brain ticking over and keeps us all young. And it's not competitive. We don't play for the town clock, which is a phrase you will hear in Whist."
There are two games going on at this particular meet-up, with one of the boards showing the word 'zags'.
Not normally seen without a preceding 'zig', it means a sharp change of direction and can be used on its own.
To the fairweather player, who might only play at Christmas or rainy afternoons, it's an impressive word.
But not to the Blackheath Library Scrabble crew who have become experts at words with obscure letters. They are also excellent at two-letter words, an extremely useful means to use up remaining tiles.
A chart is kept beside the board with a list of 123 little-known but acceptable two-letter words endorsed by their 'bible', the Chambers Scrabble Dictionary.
The idea is you don't need to know the meaning of handy fillers like ''bo' and 'da', only that you can use them.
The aim of the game is to get the longest word you can, using up all seven tiles, earning yourself a 50-point bonus on top although, admittedly, that rarely happens.
The highest single-play score on record is 392 points for ‘caziques’, the word for ancient Mexican princes, played during a match in Manchester on 1982, and still a world record.
Eleanor Hebbard, a 75-year-old retired administrator at Rowley College, once played a word that gave her a score of 144. So stunned was she that she took a photograph.
"Did you cheat?" asks Iris Wilkinson, 84, a former colleague. "Not that time," replies Eleanor.
Humour is definitely a shared trait of these players. Barbara Betts, 64, a former hospital clerk, says: "It's fun, we have a laugh – especially with the words we put down sometimes, which we couldn't repeat.
"It gets us out of the house for an afternoon, we really enjoy it. It's social as well as educational. Most of us win every few games, it's fairly even, and we're able to fit in three games in the two hours."
Blackheath, which meets every third Monday in the month, is one of 4,000 clubs worldwide – the board is printed in 29 languages – who regularly play.
In 2002, a number of mobile phone texters lobbied the Association of British Scrabble Players, demanding that examples of 'text-speak', such as BTW (by the way) and AKA (also known as), be allowed as legitimate words but were turned down flat.
Regardless, the Blackheath players think the game is more popular than ever with young people – although possibly not with men. "The last time I went on holiday with my family, my grandchildren all said bring your Scrabble board with you," said Barbara.
Eleanor, too, plays with her nine-year-old granddaughter.
"She's got an iPad but still asks me for game. You need patience – that's why not many husbands are interested in playing."