Senegal, the seven-letter country that gives extra points to its Scrabble heroes

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Post: Senegal, the seven-letter country that gives extra points to its Scrabble heroes

Senegal, the seven-letter country that gives extra points to its Scrabble heroes

From The Times (
January 10, 2008

Adam Sage in Paris

The head of state has demanded a victory. The nation expects one. And the team is focused on what promises to be a memorable event.

The French-language Scrabble championship is being held in Dakar this year and Senegal is determined to demonstrate its prowess in a discipline that has become a national passion.

With President Wade throwing his weight behind the tournament, Senegalese players – who have won international Scrabble tournaments before – are under pressure to show that they are as much masters of la langue française as the French are themselves.

Although the World Francophone Scrabble Championship does not start until July the build-up is already under way in the West African country, with Issa Mbaye Samb, the Sports Minister, having declared the event a national priority.

“Scrabble will be treated with full honours,” he said. “It has brought a lot of satisfaction to our country.”

He said that the Scrabble team should enjoy the same facilities and prestige as other sporting stars, including footballers. A ten-day training camp is planned to enable the champions to sharpen their concentration and foster a team spirit.

“They’re absolutely passionate about this,” said Antonin Michel, France’s best player. “They’re incredibly competitive and it’s almost like an Olympic sport to them. I don’t know of any other country that takes it as seriously. It’s unique, certainly in the Francophone world.”

Among English speakers the only nation with a similar passion for Scrabble is Thailand, which hosts the world’s biggest tournament.

When Senegalese players won three titles at an international competition in Quebec, Canada, last year, President Wade told them: “I exhort you to conserve your titles. You are among the best. I am proud of you.” He added that Senegal’s success in a discipline of the mind and of the intellect showed that the country had the capacity to succeed in other areas as well.

Commentators added that the Senegalese Scrabble triumph would help to demolish stereotypes about Africans – particularly in France, the former colonial ruler, which used to think that only Belgium could rival its grasp of Molière’s language.

“The French were surprised at first,” said Ndongo Samba Sylla, a 29-year-old economist who was Senegal’s first international Scrabble champion. “They did not think that Africans could play in a language which was not their mother tongue. But now they know we can and they treat us as equals.”

This month Senegal’s standing was underlined when the International Francophone Scrabble Federation authorised the use of 14 Wolof words – the language spoken by 45 per cent of the Senegalese population.

The terms refer to local objects and customs – such as thié boudienne, a fish and rice dish, or xalam, a Senegalese lute – for which there is no French equivalent.

Such words have been included in a new version of the official French-language Scrabble dictionary, to the delight of the Senegalese. “This is a way of opening our culture to the world,” Mr Sylla said.

Letters abroad

— Duplicate Scrabble is the predominant version of the game played in the Francophone world. The rules are as follows:

— Each player sits alone at a table, with his own board and another on which all the letters are arranged face up

— A “director” takes charge. He holds a prearranged list of the order of tiles, and starts the game by announcing the first seven letters to be used by all players, who then have three minutes to make the highest-scoring word possible

— When the time is up, all hand in their suggestions on a small piece of paper. The highest-scoring suggestion is announced, and all players arrange that word on their boards, while earning the score from their own suggested plays

— A giant board hangs on the wall, charting progress with large paper letters pegged to it as the game unfolds

— The game continues, with all players playing with identical boards, until the tiles are exhausted. The player with the highest score wins

— Games take up to two and a half hours to complete. Accents are disregarded, and letter values are largely similar to those in the English version, with the notable exception of W, which is worth 10, rather than 4

Source: Jerusalem Scrabble Club

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