When I was a child, when I went to nearby Rosenheim for sporting events, it was for ice hockey. But there is another way. The »Rosenheim Cup« takes place in mid-July – in Scrabble. It is one of the weekend tournaments of the letter game, patented in 1948, which are regularly organized in Germany. Every two years, the tournament winners can compete in the »League of Champions«.
However, the highlight of every Scrabble year is the German championship, which has been held since 2010. This year they met in Nuremberg at the beginning of June. An old friend won: Ulla Trappe from Augsburg not only won the very first title in 2010, but also those in 2012 and 2015. With a total of four titles, she is now the record holder. The playoffs were broadcast live.
The participants themselves know that the German championship in Scrabble isn’t on the radar of too many people. “I won the most unknown German championship: in Scrabble!” Last year’s winner Alexander Dings announced on YouTube, where he uploaded the decisive game. According to wort-suchen.de, the “site for word games and puns,” Dings is one of Scrabble’s “young wild ones,” a group of “enthusiastic young Scrabble players who stand out in tournaments by playing quickly in the breaks play a few Speed Scrabble games«.
Dings came third that year. Like the second, he earned prize money of 300 euros. Ulla Trappe took 500 euros home with her. If prize money is paid out at the weekend tournaments, then only if something is left over from the budget after deducting all costs. According to Sebastian Herzog, the sums are “in the very low three-digit range”.
Nobody who is interested in Scrabble in Germany can ignore Herzog. He is President of the Scrabble Germany association, which he co-founded in 2005 and under whose patronage Scrabble is played in tournaments. In addition, the puzzle author has been involved in the Scrabble puzzle for more than 20 years timemagazine responsible.
Originally, says Herzog in an interview with jW, Scrabble Germany was founded to hold student championships. This was done for three years – as Herzog thinks, with great success. But further expenditure failed due to the financing. Herzog remains convinced of the pedagogical importance of the game: “In my opinion, this game belongs in every elementary school because it helps children to improve their vocabulary, gain insight into grammar and deepen basic arithmetic.”
I want to know from Herzog what makes a good Scrabble player. The expert points to an extensive vocabulary, good knowledge of grammar and an eye for moorings; However, the “alpha and omega” is the ability to form anagrams, i.e. to form another word from one word using the same letters.
The New Zealander Nigel Richards, who is also said to have a phenomenal photographic memory, seems to have all these prerequisites. Richards is sort of the Garry Kasparov of Scrabble, only less talkative. The now 55-year-old has won the world’s most important Scrabble tournament, the world championship for English-speaking Scrabble players, five times. No one else has emerged victorious twice from the tournament, which has been held since 1991. But that’s not all. In 2015, Richards also crowned himself the French-speaking Scrabble World Champion without speaking French. He simply memorized the French Scrabble dictionary. He proved that he hadn’t forgotten this three years later when he won the title a second time. An achievement that also impressed Herzog, who spoke of an “island talent”.
Richards is considered withdrawn and media shy. Since 2000 he has been living in Malaysia, where he apparently works with computers. You can’t get accurate information. After all, if you win an English-speaking Scrabble World Championship, you will be rewarded with prize money of up to 20,000 euros. Richards’ passion for cycling is documented. When he first competed in the New Zealand Championships in 1998, he drove 360 kilometers from his hometown of Christchurch to Dunedin in 14 hours, played his games and made his way back.
Scrabble tournaments are often played according to the “Swiss model”, which football fans will also have to get used to in the future, since the Champions League will also follow the unclear model from 2024. In short: you play against many competitors, but not against all of them, there are elimination games and eventually a final.
“Is Scrabble a sport?” I ask Sebastian Herzog. “In our opinion yes, at least a mental exercise,” he says. However, one should not hope for admission to sports associations. Not only does Scrabble have a hard time as a board game, but also because drawing the letters adds an element of luck to the game. In fact, sports officials like to defend the sporting ideals here. Economic injustices are, of course, taken for granted and not seen as distorting competition.
Sport or not, every competition, including Scrabble, needs its rules. The validity of the words is based on respected partners, so Duden has its own Scrabble dictionary, on which Sebastian Herzog also worked. There are vocabulary lists to consult if necessary, and if that doesn’t help, referees can be consulted at tournaments. All too often, however, they do not have to intervene.
At the end of our conversation, I ask Herzog whether there is anything else that is particularly important to him. Yes, he says, it’s important to emphasize that Scrabble tournaments are anything but senior events. That is by no means the case. Herzog is right, that can be proven empirically. Pakistani Misbah ur Rehman was nine years old when he competed at the 2018 World Cup. Alexander Dings was not yet 30 when he became German champion in 2021. Many of Nigel Richards’ biggest challengers are of a similar age. So Scrabble is for everyone. You don’t even have to like High German. Bavarian, Berlin and Cologne versions of the game have been on the market for several years. There are no tournaments in the dialects yet. The Rosenheim Cup could do pioneering work here.