Triple Word Score by Philip Charter

An ageing Scrabble tournament officiator takes a shine to an eccentric Romanian competitor with an outside chance at winning the UK Open; by Philip Charter.

We've never had a playoff before. The first match finished in a draw, so I reset the board and they'll start again. I'd usually be fast asleep by now, but I'm here, officiating in front of a hundred people as the rank outsider, Mikkael Iliescu, takes on seven-time champion, Norman White. For White, it's all about the Association of British Scrabble Players title, but for Mikkael, the cash prize would be life changing.

Members of the crowd crane their necks for a better look. They switch their view from the players to the big screen as if the tiles might change. The screen shows the game board, with its wonderful words criss crossing each other: solarium, banshee, gherkins, quern, pesticide, formulae. The tournament competitors have stayed to see if the first-time finalist can beat the greatest player the game has ever seen. We're not supposed to pick sides, but I have a son named Michael. His family live in Australia now. I don't see them much. I don't see anyone much, then bam, it's the UK Open again. Mikkael runs through his combinations, his eyes wide, flitting between rack and board. Norman considers the words through his thick-framed glasses.

You get strange sorts here: etymological nerds and lexical know-it-alls, although they aren't exactly chatty. I'd describe most of the players as reclusive: fourteen points. Can I do better than fourteen? Misanthropic: twenty-one. There you go. They might not be the most social bunch, but none of them are leaving until they know the result.

Running the biggest tournament in Europe is hard work for an old codger like me, but I always look forward to meeting the competitors on the first weekend in October. Since Helen died, it's just me and the dog. I must say, in my twenty years of judging, I've never seen a competitor like Mikkael. He's encyclopedic, oddly specific, obsessed, and has the look of a bird who just found an impostor in its nest. Fifty years ago, I was him, playing in my first final, gambling on winning enough pay for my bed & breakfast and ticket home.

It was Friday morning I first met Mr Iliescu. The association president, Dave, and I were hanging the banners and getting everything up to the ABSP standard. Enter a pasty young man, sporting a crumpled tracksuit.

"Hello, there," I said. "Registration doesn't open until twelve." I don't know what he asked for when he went to the barber, but unless it was 'the electrocuted by the toaster' look, he was getting seen off.

He emitted a high-pitched laugh. "Oh, yes, I am very cognizant of this," he said in a thick Eastern European accent. "My autobus just dismounted." Another laugh.

Quite the vocabulary on this one. I enquired where he had travelled from.

"I'm from Transylvania, in Romania." His laugh was a little nervous this time.

I had spotted the miniature Sesame Street Dracula doll attached to the zip of his rucksack. "Oh. I'm not sure we've had a Romanian player before. Did you fly to London or Birmingham?"

"Eh, no. I arrived presently, on a bus. From Romania."

No wonder he looked like he had slept in a bunker. My goodness. I only came eight miles, and I still felt bleary eyed.

"It took forty-two hours, seventeen minutes, and twenty seconds," he said. There was that laugh again - every time he spoke.

"Well, welcome to the UK Open. I'm Warren Parr," I said, proffering a hand.

"Hello. I'm Mikkael," he said, as another titter escaped, "Pleased to acquaint you. It is my inaugural tournament here." He smiled, perhaps dreaming of the prize money, revealing an upper incisor so crooked it appeared to be making a break for freedom.

While I dressed tables and coordinated with hotel staff, Mikkael sat on the floor (rather than the chairs provided) and alternated between catatonic sleep and leafing through his Official Scrabble Players' dictionary. It's amazing that someone could sit on a bus for two days and not want to get some fresh air. I suppose there's not much to see in Coventry anyway.

The first day was hectic. More Scrabblers enter every year, but our team is just me and Dave with the occasional help from his missus. I shouldn't complain, it's our marquee event, and all the big names come to town. I still hold out hope of seeing one of the top scoring words in live play: quixotry, oxyphenbutazone, quizzify, muzjinks, oxazepam, syzygy. One day.

While I grow older, the players get younger. This year's lot had an array of electronic gizmos, spiky haircuts and clothes which didn't fit properly. They rushed around at breakneck speed all morning, while I hobbled from table to table with my stick.

I scribbled down the scores in my notebook, then inputted them to the computer and displayed the next matches on the leaderboard. It was my job to ensure we were on schedule. Dave just swanned around shaking hands with other association chiefs and interested bystanders. On top of my duties, I fielded questions from the players.

"Are Blank Bingos permitted under ABSP rules?"

"How many copies of OSPD4 do you have in the break area?"

"My opponent has been brailing. Can I lodge an official complaint?"

Most of the guys (and they are mostly men) weren't socially apt. They could pluck the most obscure Victorian words from a pool of jumbled up letters, yet they could barely string two words together. When I could, I followed the progress of our Transylvanian wanderer. He won his preliminaries and accrued a decent points differential.

During the breaks, the players went outside to make calls, stretch their legs, and consume a variety of brightly coloured drinks. Not Mikkael. He seemed allergic to natural light and stayed put in the lobby. He spent his break typing feverishly into a tiny laptop computer, chattering away to himself. It was like he was some kind of calculator, having to verbally process the gobbledegook he was inputting - complex algorithms and incomprehensible script, no doubt. At lunch he sat alone, switching his focus from his computer screen to his dinner plate. Food tastes better with company, so I headed over to sit with him.

He smiled nervously, revealing the tooth that popped out at a forty-five-degree angle. "Hello again, Mr. Warren. Today is very spectacular."

"You had a successful morning, Mikkael."

"Yes, my objective is to proliferate to the next round," he replied with his mouth full. His plate was piled high with pasta, potato salad, crisps and miniature sandwiches. Two glasses of milk stood guard on either side of his feast. I told him he could go back for seconds, but he said his body consumed 'astounding quantities' of carbohydrates because he ran marathons.

Over lunch he gave me his life story - university 'with only sixteen years of antiquity', parents losing their farm to the bank, and him paying for his sister's education. He laughed as he told me that the first prize of five thousand pounds would be life transforming, but I could see he didn't really find it funny.

"I work with computers. Perhaps you noticed my contraptions," he said as if his battered laptop was the only thing on my mind.

"Some kind of coding thingy, is it?" I was hoping the conversation would shut down soon. I'm not technological. 'End-to-end encryption', apparently. Thankfully, before he could start going into routers and HTMLs, another player sat at our table.

"Err, hello," she said. "Did you say you're from Romania?"

Mikkael reached into his tracksuit pocket and fished out the rather grubby Dracula toy. "Yes. Transylvania," he said while waggling the doll. He laughed. So did the girl.

She was short with big eyes and a swept fringe, a little like a baby highland cow. Perhaps it was the nose ring that made me think that, although baby cows don't have as many tattoos on their arms.

"I'm Mona," she said, "from Bucharest. So there's two of us, I guess." She extended her hand.

Mikkael put The Count back in his pocket and dusted off his hand. He looked at me as if he was checking he was doing it right, then shook. "Mikkael." That was me, an awkward eighteen year-old asking my Helen to dance for the first time. Turned out she didn't know any steps either, but we got better together.

Mikkael fished out a disposable camera from his bag, one of the little yellow ones you have to wind forward after every shot. They posed for a photo, cheek to cheek, and I pressed the button. I handed the camera back to Mikkael, and he inspected it, even though there was no way of knowing how the picture would turn out.

The afternoon went by with all sixty-four competitors exchanging wins and losses, and moving anticlockwise for their next games. There were plenty of high scores, dictionary challenges, and more than a bit of coffee-housing (when players distract their opponents).

At home, the dog would be getting restless, and I was ready for my tea, too. I needed to rest my eyes; those little game pieces weren't getting any easier to read. Before leaving, I checked the tournament leaderboard and as expected, Norman White, the defending champion, had wiped the floor with his opposition. The other big names had advanced, and Mikkael and Mona had both made it through to the second day's play. He still had a chance at winning the first prize - five thousand pounds. I smiled at the thought of a wealthy Mikkael, transported back in time, wearing a smart black cape and bow tie, just like his mascot. As usual, I ate dinner alone.

Owning a hungry terrier means you don't need an alarm clock. I'm usually up by six, but that morning Willy woke me up twenty minutes later. After I dealt with the dog and took my pills, I had a quick look through the Coventry Telegraph, and was surprised to see none other than Mikkael staring back at me on page fourteen. They usually do a little feature on the tournament, which is good publicity for the association, but this time, they included a fact-file interview with three of the entrants.

The first two interviews featured Janice Hopkins (a retired school bursar) and Deepak Chaudhary (semi-professional and one of the favourites). Mikkael, who looked like he'd just emerged from a bush, stared at the camera blankly.

As much as I like a natter about 'point-balancing' and 'rack management', I try not to fraternise too much with the competitors. As an official, it wouldn't be right to play favourites, but I found myself openly rooting for Mikkael, imagining him taking the title and prize money back to his little village in deepest Romania. In his interview, he said that he'd only started playing a year ago 'in order to meet people', same as I did 'way back when'. If only there was a tournament this big every month, I might not be stuck talking to the dog so much. Mikkael said he'd spend the £5,000 prize buying more chickens for his grandmother's farm. There's got to be a good joke in there about 'putting all of your eggs in one basket', or 'counting your chickens'. By the time I put the paper down, I was unfashionably late, so I jumped in the car and hot-footed it back to the Quality Hotel. It would be a tiring day, but a rare social outing, before my next family gathering at Christmas.

Dave, the ABSP president, had made the draw in my absence. "I couldn't wait any longer, Woz," he said. "The players were getting impatient."

I hate it when he calls me Woz. It makes me sound like the past tense - something that's been and gone. I told him how I'd lost track of time.

"That's not like you, Woz. Very punctual normally." He slid his hands into his waistcoat pockets. "Well, White looks like he's got a straight shot to the final. Be fantastic to see him win again."

"Mmm, it's likely," I said. "He won the French Masters last month, and he doesn't even speak the bloody language." I saw on the game list that Mikkael Iliescu had been paired with Mona, the girl from lunch. "I'll be..."

When play started, I watched game number fourteen from a distance. Mona looked well rested and confident, but Mikkael was a nervous wreck around her. He didn't know what to do with his hands, and he was laughing too much. Maybe that's why I took to him; back in the days before Helen came and went, I was hopeless with girls.

The score was 1-0 to Mikkael and he was up in the second. His mascot sat next to him on the table, and he gave him a little tap on the head every time he recorded a score. The board lay between them with a smattering of interesting words: rasterize, polyglots, yankee, quintillion, bechamel. Poor old Mona wasn't having much luck and had a rack full of vowels. She curled her hair with a finger between turns and distracted Mikkael by firing question after question at him. "How long are you staying here? Are you actually a robot from the future with an inbuilt dictionary?" She teased him about his interview. "Why do you need so many chickens?" He shuffled around in his chair, and fidgeted with The Count while he batted the questions back in his bizarre English. At one point, he spilt all of the tiles in his rack onto the floor and had to call a match official to ensure he wasn't cheating.

There are no rules against talking, but with £5,000 at stake, players need to concentrate. I was impressed that Mikkael was capable of producing such impressive words despite Mona's flirting. Just when I thought he might have a panic attack because of the stress, he laid down a seven-letter bingo on a triple word score: kamikaze. One hundred and thirty-one points. He sat back in satisfaction. "I have sacrificed my letters for your consideration," he said with a laugh, then he took a huge gulp from his bottle of orange drink. The game was over. They shook hands and Mikkael moved onto the next round.

Any game scores over five-hundred always garner interest, and before long, players and spectators came to gawk at the finished game board. Mikkael sat with a sheepish look while others took pictures on their phones. He had finished his match before everyone else, including Norman White.

Mikkael cruised through his next match against a sixteen-year-old from Leeds, but struggled in his quarter-final, winning by just three points in the deciding game. Was it all getting too much for him? The long journey, the crowds, the language. Keeping track of his progress and running the competition was exhausting, but I always root for the outsider because I'm one, too. Mona kept him company during the breaks. They became inseparable - Team Transylvania. He stole glances at her whenever he thought she wasn't looking, but more often than not, she caught him and stuck her tongue out.

Once the tournament got down to four tables, Dave and I just had to make sure no-one was feeding answers, or using devices. By 4pm, we had our four semi-finalists. Norman White would face Bernice Langdon, a repeat of last year's final, and Mikkael Iliescu would need to beat Deepak Chaudhary to reach his first ranking tournament final.

In the last few years, I've taken a break in the afternoon so I can get back to officiate the final. I'd be asleep in my judge's chair if I didn't take time out. Dave's long-suffering wife arrived to take over for a few hours.

When I got home, I took Willy out for his walk, but instead of enjoying the grounds of Kenilworth Castle, I found myself resting on a bench, calculating Scrabble scores for my surroundings - balustrade, drawbridge, fiefdom. After half an hour of plodding around in the late afternoon sun, I was done in. Even with the extra sleep, it had been a long day. A beep from my trouser pocket woke me from a doze. I wasn't holding out much hope for Mikkael after his good run, so I nearly gave Willy a heart attack when I shouted in celebration.

"Go on Mikkael, you beauty!" He had beaten Chaudhary 360 to 332.

That's how we arrived here - to a final between a Transylvanian oddball and the greatest player in the history of Association Scrabble. The first game was cagey, both players playing defensively, not wanting to leave the board open. The noise of the crowd grew and grew as they mumbled possible words, scores and tactics to each other. I had to shh them when it came down to the final tile. Mikkael had one piece left, but was unable to play and the scores stayed level. We reset the board and started again.

Will White lose? Will Mikkael win enough money to help his family and take a flight home instead of the bus? Lights from camera phones blink on and off. Everyone in the crowd wants a memento. Mikkael tries to cool down by flapping his tracksuit jacket to get the air circulating inside. Norman sits upright, waiting. It's 11:20pm, but he's in no hurry. He came within one point of losing his title, but he's not flustered. He just stares through his spectacles and smoothes his beard. The crowd shuffle from foot to foot. Mikkael's complexion has changed. What was a pasty white, is now overdone fried chicken. His empty orange drink bottle rests against the chair leg.

Dave pushes the action. "Mr Iliescu, you have thirty seconds."

Mikkael looks to The Count for help. He's got some high-value tiles, but only two vowels. By my calculations, Mikkael needs a miracle to win. Even if he could spell miracle, the eleven points wouldn't do him much good. White is miles ahead. Those chickens will have to stay put.

As his time expires, he speaks. "I want to exchange," he says with a laugh. He's forfeited his go. The crowd whisper, some of them explaining to the casual observers what it means: a new letter and a missed turn.

His opponent smiles triumphantly, mentally pocketing the prize money. This is the first exchange in a final since... well, even I can't remember one. Mikkael is going to need two miracles now. He stuffs his hand into the bag and pulls out a new tile, replacing it with his dead one. In the meantime, Norman White plays his next word: divulge, and goes a further twenty points into the lead because of a triple letter score. Some of the crowd start to drift into the lounge bar to catch last orders.

How is Mikkael going to find his way out of this one? I can't see what he's got, but it must be something good. It appears that he's suffered some kind of short circuit, going over the maths again and again. White has left a rogue 'S' on a triple word score. Careless. Mikkael can back-hook it to pluralise a seven-letter word. He scoops up all seven tiles and lays them out along the bottom row like he's showing a pearl necklace to an interested buyer. The word is quetzals: a rare bird and the Guatemalan currency if I'm not mistaken. It's a double triple-word-score bingo. Two hundred and eighty-four points in one turn. Mikkael reaches into the bag and collects the final tiles. That's the highest word score I've ever seen! Incredible.

But wait. Dave raises a hand. "Infraction. Fast-bagging."

He has to be joking. Fast-bagging is for players who don't give their opponent a chance to challenge. White knows the rules. If he thought for a second that quetzals was questionable, he'd have challenged. The crowd chatter turns up a notch.

"Dave. Let's not be silly now." I pull him to one side, away from the board. "You can't call that, you'll wipe off the biggest score we've seen."

"It was too quick, Woz."

"Listen," I say, "this kid has already got enough going against him. He was just nervous for God's sake." I can't let Dave throw his weight around this time.

"I have the final say here." He looks over to the reigning champion, who focuses on his tiles. "Norman?"

White lifts his head and shrugs. He's happy to play on. He wouldn't have challenged.

Dave sighs. "Alright, let's just hope it doesn't affect the result." He addresses the crowd. "No infraction, play shall continue."

The score goes up onto the screen above the players and Mona jumps two feet in the air. The crowd bubbles with excitement, counting out scores on fingers and mumbling the word over and over again. Mikkael taps The Count on the head and exhales in relief. There's nothing more he can do now, it's over to his opponent.

White needs a bingo to win. Can he use all seven of his letters? The crowd goes silent. Nobody dares check their phone or take a sip or their drink. Another twenty seconds or so of deep thought. I've seen White weave his magic many a time, but he must be rattled by what's just transpired. The board is still quite open, but he's only holding one vowel. It could be tricky. The play clock is counting down. He's got fifteen seconds more. Mikkael looks close to passing out.

Suddenly, White relaxes. The corner of his mouth twitches into a smile, and we know he's got something. Will it be enough? He adds all seven of his letters to an A in the top left of the board, to form abstract. It scores him 74 and by finishing his letters, Mikkael's rack counts double against him. I count up the extra tiles and check my score sheet. My worst fears are confirmed. Those extra points put Norman White over the top. He's won again. Dave proudly announces that the champion has retained the ABSP UK Open.

I slump down in my chair. Of course, it was unlikely that anyone would dethrone such a wonderful player, but it was so close. I feel like I've lost a five-thousand-pound bet. I remember back to the 73' Open final - the one that got away. Mikkael rises from his chair and shakes the champion's hand. "What a splendid game, Mr Norman." A yawn takes hold, and I cast my mind forward to a good night's sleep and waking to the Telegraph crossword.

A few well-wishers approach the champion and the journalist waits patiently with her dictaphone. Mikkael's name will not be in tomorrow's headline but the community will be talking about this match for years to come. Nearly three hundred points for one word. The tournament players and other spectators gather round, wanting to give him a pat on the back. He cuts a different figure from the lonely foreigner fixated on his old computer the day before. Perhaps there's hope for me, too. He takes out the yellow camera and gets a few group shots to remember the moment.

I have to wait a full five minutes before I can offer my commiserations. "Tough break, kiddo," I say, tapping Mikkael on the shoulder.

He's still wired from the adrenaline of the game. "Ha haa. Yes, it was a very proximate game, no?"

Mona clamps herself to his arm, and can't resist chipping in. "So unlucky! You look like you need a drink." She offers him her lemonade and Mikkael gulps it down in one. He seems revived. Mona feigns surprise that he's just stolen her entire drink. "I thought I'd be able to say I lost to the champ," she says. "But I'm still proud of you. You nearly did it." She goes up on tiptoes and plants a kiss on his cheek. For once, Mikkael doesn't laugh.

I offer him a heartfelt handshake, gripping his elbow with my free hand. "You know, that's the biggest word score we've ever had in the tournament, and you still get the £500 runners-up prize."

He smiles his snaggletoothed smile.

"The award ceremony will be on stage in about ten minutes." I slip him an ABSP business card, and tell him to contact me if he needs anything, Scrabble related or otherwise.

"Yes, Mr Warren," he says. "I would like to send you my computer application for a 3D Scrabble to participate online."

"I'm not sure my old desktop computer knows how to handle 3D games."

Mikkael unzips his bag and thrusts his laptop into my hands. "Please, it would be honorary to stay in touch. It is loaded on here. Now we can play together online." Surely he needs to keep his laptop for work, to support his family.

"I buy new one tomorrow with my prize money," he says. "Please."

I don't know if it is the high emotion of the day, the late hour, or the fact he and Mona remind me so much of my early days in the Scrabble community, but a lump builds in my throat. "Thank you, young man. It will be an honour to play you online."

It's not often I meet new people and most of my old friends are six feet under. I'll enjoy exchanging news with him via email. Perhaps 3D Scrabble will become a part of the ABSP events one day. Anyway, it's nice to know he's found a like-minded soul in Mona. I'm not sure about those tattoos, but she's a kind girl. For a second I imagine them married, at home, with verbacious little tracksuited children sat on the carpet in front of them. Perhaps they'll go to Guatemala on honeymoon, look for quetzals, and reminisce about the tournament that brought them together.

"You must be hungry," I say to Mikkael. "I can give you a lift to Coventry's finest kebab establishment on the way home."

Before long, we're sharing a meal, crammed into the small seating area of Eastern Treats. We search for the most valuable item on the dimly lit menu display. Donner, kofte, falafel. Then I see it. "Shawarma," I say. "Nineteen points."


  1. I especially enjoyed Mikkael’s dialogue. And tapping Dracula on the head for luck is a great touch. Well done.

  2. Entertaining story... scrabble has a sizeable and element of chance whereas chess does not... so for someone to win a scrabble tournament he or she must have luck in the letters. Fitting to have the protagonist a very old fellow, and traditional in his scrabble... that is well done, how he identifies with Mikkael.

  3. This one really pulled me in, for the Scrabble lore and detail, and for the strong characters. Kind of "The Queen's Gambit" for Scrabble.

    A missing word in the 3rd sentence (I'd usually fast asleep by now...) gave me pause, as it seems otherwise so well edited.

    I also wondered how a 12-letter word like MISANTHROPIC could possibly be played, or how QUETZALS could be a double-triple when the S was already on the triple word. But that's just me being a Scrabble nerd. Great story.

    1. Fixed the error, not sure what happened there. Thanks, Chris.

  4. Well written. I enjoyed the focus on all of the human connections, especially the interaction between the older generation (with their rules and traditions) and the younger generation (with their energy and technology).

  5. Masterful description, pacing, and humorous dialogue keeps this story going and such fun to read. I enjoyed the chemistry between the characters--they felt so real to me. Great job!

  6. Hi Everyone. Thank you so much for your comments. I'm glad I found some other interested 'word nerds' here.