Spotlight on South African Scrabble

Scrabble in South Africa has a long history: the first clubs started in the late 1960s and the first Nationals occurred around the mid to late 1980s. Since the late 1980s, SANSPA (the South African National Players Association) and now known as Scrabble SA has been in operation.

There are two major centres - Johannesburg and Cape Town (around 1400 kms apart!) with around 10 clubs open to players. There are typically three national tournaments a year - the Masters, the Nationals and the Collins Cup.

In recent times, though, club Scrabble and tournament attendance had been declining. With the election to the provincial committee of both Andrew Goldberg and Steven Gruzd, there has been energy placed into growing the Nationals, which at the time, was about to be held. The venue, Huddle Park, had been chosen to host the event.

Money had been invested to growing two Facebook mediums, Scrabble SA and ZA Scrabble. There is now an active WhatsApp group which has attracted plenty of banter and has been greatly appreciated by players. Prior to the event, Scrabble SA met with Mattel, who were keen to support a forthcoming schools event (see below) with plans to meet Jonathan Ball publishers (publishers of Harper Collins in South Africa) after the event.

Prizes for the Nationals came in from Mattel, Collins and two other sponsors (the Stingray Group and Goldberg Attorneys) as well as players Sheba Bagg and Ike Obidike.

One of the more novel ideas in the lead up to the Nationals involved inviting of journalists interested in playing and who wanted to write a piece in return - Steven Gruzd noted that one journalist (Nechama Brodie - @brodiegal on Twitter) took them up on this offer and played in the social section (which preceded the Nationals).

Diana Mason and Pam Field from Cape Town

Deacon Ola Gbadamosi, a Nigerian now living in SA, and Denise Le Bron

The Championships

Steven Gruzd, recently elected to a provincial committee, is a political analyst and freelance journalist, who has been playing Scrabble since 1984. Prior to the event, WESPA caught up with him, and asked for who he thought would be the players to watch.

He noted the favorite was the 6 time champion Dr Trevor Hovelmeier followed by lawyer Jarrod Page and mathematician Harry Wiggins. And even after winning the Masters directly before the Nationals, he modestly labeled himself a "dark horse".

Three Zambian players added to the strength of the field: Paul Kalumba, (Zambian MP) Mwenya Munkonge and Frank Chitambala.

The Nationals, as an event, are annual and usually rotate between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Next year Cape Town will play host.

Whilst there would be focus on the 34 strong main event, it should also be noted there were 16 new players playing in other divisions (including 9 under 18s). The event itself attracted media interest with at least one TV station airing a report including interviews with both Andrew Goldberg and Harry Wiggins.

The photos featured here, and shared via the ZA Scrabble Facebook page truly demonstrate the diversity of the players taking part.

Rajen Pillay vs Roshelle Pillay

Zambia and South African players mid event

Paul Kalumba vs Llewellin Jegels

Beryl Armitage vs Zambian Frank Chitambala

The Championship event was a tense and exciting affair which went right down to the final game. Jarrod Page had been a leader for most of the event and for all of the second day (even as late as Game 13, his lead was 2 games from Steven Gruzd) - but by the final games, only Harry Wiggins was in a position to take the title away.

The final three games had been KOTH - and, as Game 16 beckoned, Page was up by 12 wins to 11 but Wiggins had the far superior spread.

Taking the win in the final game, Harry Wiggins (mathematician at the University of Pretoria and 8th voted out on Season 4 of Survivor South Africa) was crowned the 2019 South African Scrabble Champion. Some of his words played included VINDALOO, GOUJONS and SOMEDEAL - the first two he highlighted in a TV interview after the event.

Upcoming plans include a schools project aiming at 100 players from 10 schools on 15 September (both Andrew Goldberg and Steven Gruzd are offering free coaching sessions in schools in support of this). If you want to join the WhatsApp group, you can friend Steven Gruzd on Facebook or contact him on +27845810777.

Andrew Goldberg has now been elected National Chairman of Scrabble South Africa, with Gerald Davids as Vice Chairman. With so much planned, we are eagerly looking forward to seeing the rewards of all the hard work being done in South African Scrabble.

2019 South African Champion Harry Wiggins

Photos published with thanks to Steven Gruzd. Additional content with thanks to Steven Gruzd