Man of letters

As a physics teacher, Nigel Ingham is pretty good at fathoming complex equations and formulae. But he's also got a way with words. Harvey McGavin meets a tile guru.

I'm playing Scrabble with Nigel Ingham, a physics teacher. He's just laid a cagey opener - "ho" (an exclamation used to attract attention). I study the jumble of letters on my rack. It doesn't look good: lots of Es, a few uninspiring consonants. Suddenly, a seven-letter word appears. There it is, the Scrabble player's Holy Grail, the best you can get in this game. I put it down slowly, savouring the moment. Delving in the green bag to fill my newly emptied rack, I glance at my opponent. The score is 74-10. Nigel looks rattled. My word is "petered", as in petered out, which is exactly what subsequently happened to my challenge.

My best efforts ("judo" and "corny") are no match for Nigel who, as well as being a physics teacher is also a former British Scrabble champion. You might even recognise his picture because, as an avid games player, he has appeared on TV programmes such as Countdown, Krypton Factor and even Wheel of Fortune.

But Scrabble is his first love. He is pondering the possibilities in seconds, toying with words that look like anagrams of anagrams. "Tsunami", he tells me, is a type of a tidal wave, and I take his word for it. My sweet lead evaporates as he closes down the board, blocking scoring avenues with two-letter words of dubious origin ("ea"? "po"? "te"?), and finishes me off by laying a couple of seven-letter piledrivers through triple-score squares. The result is a comfortable 413-281 victory for him, and complete humiliation avoided for me. Oh well, it's only a game.

Whisper it softly in serious Scrabble-playing circles, but Nigel is not a fanatic. "There are some Scrabble players for whom Scrabble is their life, " he says. "But I enjoy doing other things, which is maybe why I don't stand so much of a chance as other people in this year's championship."

It is 10 years since Nigel lifted the cut-glass trophy that is the centrepiece of the sideboard in his Nottingham home. He never expected to win, but as the finals progressed he found himself among the leaders. "In the opening game I wasn't doing very well. I had 300 with four moves left, but I ended up with 644, one more than my previous personal best. After that I couldn't go wrong. In the second game I got the word 'testicle'. I don't know about you but I couldn't think of an anagram. I scored 696 and was equal first after two games.

"In the last game I had 'merkin' on the board, which was a bit embarrassing. It's a running joke among Scrabble players - it means a pubic hairpiece. But I got 524 points and won it by four. It was like Wimbledon winning the FA Cup."

Like the Crazy Gang's Wembley triumph in 1988, Nigel's win remains a one-off. The format for the national championships has changed since then, with the original score-as-much-as-you-can model ("the board became an exercise in collusion between the two players") abandoned in favour of a matchplay system where the champion is decided on points scored and spread (aggregate winning margin).

In the intervening period Nigel has been spending less time with the dictionaries stacked in his dining room and more time with his children, Sebastian (8) and Jacinta (10). He also recently fulfilled a lifetime ambition, writing a textbook on astrophysics for sixth-form students.

But at Dayncourt Comprehensive in Radcliffe on Trent, Nottinghamshire, where he is head of physics, he still indulges his passion by running a lunchtime Scrabble club where pupils can play each other or tackle the computer. "Kids of all abilities come along," he says. "If we can get one or two of the weaker kids working on computers and playing with letters, that's got to be a good thing."

Familiarity with the laws of physics seems light years away from the knowledge needed to excel in a language-based board game, with which you might think English teachers would have a more natural affinity. But Nigel believes the winning formula is a matter of memory and more to do with lateral thinking than lyrical expression. After all, there are no extra points for pretty words, and you don't have to know what a word means, so long as it is in the Chambers dictionary.

The occasional player may get more enjoyment from assembling a long word, but top Scrabblers know that less means more. A succession of short, astutely placed words will always reap higher rewards. The best players stockpile useful letters and jettison awkward consonants, biding their time until a high-scoring opportunity presents itself. Nigel says the tactics are similar to those used in chess ("I always try to think several moves in advance").

Nigel's parents bought their first Scrabble set in the 1950s soon after it was launched in the UK. Nigel and his brother would spend hours amusing themselves by listening to heavy metal and filling the pink, red, blue and orange chequerboard with unusual words. "I don't remember a time when I didn't play Scrabble," Nigel says. "When I was young I could hold my own against my parents, and my brother and I would whittle away the holidays playing."

Nigel even helped his brother settle some pre-nuptial nerves with a few games. "The day he got married, we had three games of Scrabble in the morning, just to relax," he recalls And of course the best man won.

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