With 176-point ‘braconid’, word whiz clinches world Scrabble title - just don’t ask him what it means

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 12:23pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 10:30pm

World-class marathoners can rack up a couple hundred kilometres a week. Competitive eaters stretch their guts by chugging several litres of water in seconds. Prior to the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps burned through a daily 12,000-calorie diet. And for two hours a day, Brett Smitheram sat down with a dictionary.

He would ultimately memorise 70,000 words, each seven or eight letters long.

It was time well spent. The 37-year-old consultant from London credits that, plus a photographic memory, for securing his first-place victory at the World Scrabble Championship in Lille, France, on Sunday.

Words that paved his path to the top included periagua (76 points, a dugout canoe), gynaecia (95 points, reproductive parts of a flower) and the clincher, braconid. A braconid is a type of wasp that lays its eggs on a live host, typically a grub, which then gets eaten alive by the wasps’ babies.

Just don’t ask Smitheram to know, necessarily, the precise meaning behind each such word. “Memorising definitions uses up valuable brain space,” he told the New York Times. “Scrabble is an endurance sport and requires a lot of stamina.”

Braconid scored him 176 points. It earned another five points, the Guardian reported, after a doubtful opponent challenged its legitimacy. Smitheram’s pot - 7,000 euros, or about US$7,800 - was a rather modest affair for a global gaming tournament.

At the Mind Sports International 2016 Championships in Lille, Smitheram faced off against 1993 Scrabble champion Mark Nyman. To the BBC, Smitheram described 49-year-old Nyman as one of his “Scrabble idols.” The pair have known each other for years, as Nyman previously interviewed Smitheram on the British TV game show Countdown.

When Nyman asked Smitheram what his life aspiration was, “I said ‘I want to win the Scrabble World Championship’,” the newly-minted victor recalled. “And today I beat him in order to do it. Quite a story behind it.”

Although periagua and braconid have a scholarly flash, to Scrabble competitors the words are not much more than points in a row. “For living-room players, Scrabble is about language, a test of vocabularies,” wrote competitive Scrabble player Oliver Roeder on the FiveThirtyEight website. “For world-class players, it’s about cold memorisation and mathematical probabilities.”

Likewise, memorising all of the two-letter words, which enables multi-word scoring, is something of a rite of passage into top-tier Scrabble competitions.

Smitheram has been playing Scrabble for more than two decades. He told the Times he will now be taking a break from the game until at least next year.