Nigeria Is the Most Scrabble-Obsessed Nation in the World
In Nigeria, the reigning Scrabble world champion, the tiles and board are so much more than just a game.
By Sarah A. Topol
Photographs by Ruth Ossai
on the patio of Lounge 69, a bar in the working-class Surulere neighborhood of Lagos, Nigeria, three long rows of plastic tables were lined with professional Scrabble boards that turn on a lazy Susan–like wheel, all set to spin on command for the Surulere Scrabble Club’s “retreat,” a monthly tournament held at one of the megacity’s many Scrabble clubs. Players entered through the iron gates and greeted one another, clasping hands and joking. Those who arrived on time waited impatiently for their opponents, shuffling around tables, standing in clusters, then breaking off to wander, like addicts waiting for their fix.
Competitive Scrabble is more than just a parlor game: It’s a lifestyle built around hours of compulsive word memorization, careful strategizing, probability weighing, a little luck, and, most crucially, the chance to play. “It has a way of giving you a sense of fulfillment when you get it right. When you get it wrong, it punishes you. It sends you back to the game. It makes you read, it makes you study, it makes you practice,” Segun Durojaye, a stocky shipping agent and competitor, told me. “The circle of fulfillment and dissatisfaction is never-ending.”
Nigerian Scrabble is as hard and as cutthroat as it gets. The country is top-ranked in the world, and unlike most governments, Nigeria’s officially recognizes the game as a sport, with coaches and players on state payroll and grants. Nigerian players have won the African Scrabble Championship 12 out of 13 times. When a Nigerian won the World Scrabble Championship in 2015, its popularity surged further.
Lagos is the country’s Scrabble hub. The city is a warren of fishermen’s slums, shantytowns, apartment projects, middle-class gated estates, and posh mansions crammed against packed highways and choked bridges studded with flashy cars, careening buses, sputtering auto rickshaws, and overladen touts. With a population of 21 million, it is a cacophony of movement and striving, “the hustle,” as it’s often called — to get somewhere, do something, or shout something — under the hazy, polluted pink sky. So it surprised no one that many players trickled into Lounge 69 in varying degrees of late.
Hakeem Olaribigbe, a baby-faced player with a neatly groomed beard, sat at a small table by the beer and soda coolers, generating pairings on a laptop for the first round. He called the matches, and players eagerly moved to their tables. “Stop! Wait!” Olaribigbe shouted when more stragglers arrived. The whole process was repeated. In the end, 28 players prepared to face off in the retreat, more like a local monthly scrimmage than the big Scrabble regional and national tournaments often held at luxury hotels.
Everyone knew everyone, and on any other occasion they would have called it a gathering of friends or family. But today, the Scrabblers had come to win. The assembled ranged from university students to retirees and every profession in between: a fashion and sports photographer, a civil servant, a computer programmer, an architect, an Uber driver, and a full-time Scrabble teacher. At one table sat Wellington Jighere, the 2015 World English Language Scrabble Players Association Champion, known for his quiet demeanor, fedoras, and Cheshire cat–like grin. At another, Olawale Fashina, nicknamed the Champion of Ten Continents, who won the African title, the Nigerian title, and the British title in the span of seven years — a rarity in the game — prepared to play. Bukunmi Afolayan, a Scrabble coach for Ogun state and one of the best female players in the league, sat nearby. Then there was Enoch Nwali, a university student studying human kinetics and health education, who at 22 is the youngest Nigerian in the masters category.
With so many highly ranked players in one room, the field was open. Silence settled immediately, punctuated only by belabored breathing, sharp sighs, and the jingling of tiles as players held the bags by their heads with one hand, turned their gaze away, and shook the other hand around inside exaggeratedly to prove they were not cheating as they picked tiles. “Scrabble is a jealous lover,” everyone repeated to me. The game changes how players see the world, strains relationships, and consumes lives. The higher players rise in the Nigerian Scrabble gauntlet, the harder it is to win, and the harder it is to walk away.
But in Nigeria, Scrabble has become more than a game, more even than a competitive sport. In many ways, it is a microcosm for the country itself — the lust for heady competition, the hunt for financial opportunities, the complications of politics, the sclerotic government policy, with women asserting themselves in a traditional society and players frustrated by a lack of international opportunity.
Competitive Scrabble the world over is not about the meaning of words but instead about what the words represent and how they can be used. Letters become value symbols to be dispatched and rearranged for the greatest possible value. Sometimes value is sacrificed for future probability. Amateur players hunched over their boards on a Friday night assume victory hinges on a large vocabulary and seven-letter words, but in fact, the backbone of Scrabble is two- and three-letter words that mean nothing to the average person: AA, EM, JO, QI, YU. Fours, fives, then stems: six-letter combinations that will turn into seven-letter bingos. Among the most versatile is SATINE, which can be combined with any letter to make a word except J, Q, and Y. It is also about paying keen attention to the board and to your competition. When you know fewer words than your opponent, I was told, you should “choke the board,” or use shorter words to defensively block opponents so they can’t use their superior word knowledge. After that, it gets even more complicated.
For the third round of the retreat, I sat next to the Champion of Ten Continents, who was playing a computer programmer. The Champion’s rack held: COVPAXI. He started moving the tiles into different permutations quickly, his fingers as nimble as a prodigy with a Rubik’s cube: VOIC PAX, COX VIPA, VIOP XC A, V IP COAX, V PIX COA, CAPO VIX, CAPI OVX, PICA VOX, POX ICAV, PAX COVI, PIX AOCV, until my pen could no longer keep up. The next line I wrote was “missed two, so fast.” After he won, the Champion turned to me and grinned, explaining he could see all the permutations in his mind. He had been moving the tiles for my benefit. It had been mesmerizing.
Scrabble has always spread by way of evangelists and obsessives. It was invented in America in the 1930s by Alfred Mosher Butts, an unemployed architect, whose painstaking tinkering with every aspect of the game is legendary. He chronicled the frequency of letters in the pages of the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Saturday Evening Post, drafting spreadsheets to achieve the balance of how many tiles would be in the bag and their subsequent value: The more frequent a letter, the less it’s worth. He experimented with different grids and the number of double- and triple-letter scores until he arrived at a balance that Stefan Fatsis, the author of Word Freak, a history of Scrabble and the world of competitive Scrabble, calls “perfect.”
The game developed a quiet cult following, but in 1952, as lore has it, the president of Macy’s got hooked playing on vacation and was appalled to return and find his stores did not stock the game. Macy’s orders set off a massive production run. “Buying a Scrabble set in New York today is something akin to nabbing a prime rib roast at ceiling prices during WWII,” the New York World-Telegram wrote. Fatsis posits the game’s popularity dovetailed with increasing leisure time in post-WWII America. During the Great Depression, aspirational games like Monopoly were all the rage, but now, confident in their country’s role as a superpower with a booming economy, Americans had the time to invest in intellectual pursuits in their suburban living rooms. In Nigeria, Scrabble started gaining traction in the 1970s, with a similar subculture following. Kayode Fashola, a polytechnic lecturer and the players’ representative to the Nigeria Scrabble Federation (NSF), the country’s official organizing body, explained that after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, a new generation enrolled in free education. As the country began building its own institutions, the brightest were sent abroad on government scholarships. In the 1970s, they returned, bringing Scrabble sets with them. Students across the country became obsessed. “They [university students] were the actual foundation of the sport,” Fashola told me.
Back then, Fashola and his peers would pass around tattered dictionaries on loan for the weekend, poring over the pages to compose their own three-, four-, and five-letter word lists to memorize. Without an official Scrabble dictionary, fights about which words were and were not acceptable were epic. “There were a lot of arguments about bad, badder, baddest,” Fashola explained. “When Americans say, ‘You’re the baddest guy I have ever known,’ it means you’re very good. But here in Nigeria, bad is bad. Bad. Worse. Worst. So how about bad, badder, baddest? That led to a lot of arguments.” Sets for purchase were scarce, so diehards made boards at home, cutting and painting tiles by hand.
By the 1980s, that first wave of students graduated, and impromptu Scrabble clubs began cropping up across the country. Post-colonialism, growing literacy, and a collective competitive spirit fed the game. On a visit to London, Segun Adegbenro, an importer who had himself become obsessed while at university in Ibadan, a large city in southwestern Nigeria, inquired about the franchise from the game’s international purveyor at the time. Upon his return, Adegbenro canvassed the country, measuring demand, and heard of a hobby game at the Nigeria Union of Journalists in the northern city of Kaduna. General Gold Eburu, a military ammunition specialist, was a regular. He had gotten hooked while studying at the Nigerian Defence Academy and subsequently brought a set to each of his military postings, teaching soldiers and officers in mess halls to play.
The two stayed in touch, and over Easter of 1986, Adegbenro invited General Gold, as he is called, to Ibadan for the first official tournament in Nigeria. The six assembled clubs formed the Nigeria Scrabble Federation (called SCAN at the time) and began organizing tournaments with cash prizes and courting corporate sponsors. General Gold was voted president. The organization published SCANews, a magazine that featured Nigerian and world Scrabble news and discussed strategies while lamenting the difficulties of receiving visas to play abroad — a problem that continues today. Gold opened his home in Lagos to dozens of Scrabblers who gathered in his backyard under an orange tree for days at a time. “I’ll see you at Abe Igi,” the common refrain went. (Abe Igi means “under the tree” in the Yoruba language.) “You would find people under that tree day and night without eating. As some were going, others were coming. Some would be sleeping and others would be arriving,” Fashola remembered. It became a brotherhood, men playing men on the weekends. Many told me their wives were relieved it was Scrabble that kept them from their families rather than other pursuits, though others spoke of relationships ruined by their passion.
“Until recently, most of our women were not playing Scrabble,” Gold told me. His own wife attempted a few games but was not interested. Instead, she oversaw the hospitality. “She’s tolerated all my Scrabble players,” Gold said, chuckling. “Every one of them that came, especially those that stayed with me, I treated them like my children.”
As the scene grew, it pushed beyond its borders, leading to the formation of the African Scrabble Championship in 1994. By 1996, Nigerian Scrabblers were so proficient that Adegbenro, the franchise holder, invited officials from the sports ministry to watch a tournament. Chess was designated a national sport, and Adegbenro thought Scrabble should have the same distinction, but even he was surprised when it happened. “It was a joke!” he admitted. And he had no inkling of how it would take off. “It has gone nuclear. All these young people, they have changed the game,” he told me. “We have people who earn salaries from playing Scrabble. Academies are springing up. They are employing Scrabble players as teachers. The benefits are enormous.”
There are now dozens of official clubs across the country. States have Scrabble coaches on government salaries and players on government grants. Companies compete to teach Scrabble in private schools. And every year there are play-offs of every flavor: club games, interclub games, zonal games, youth games, college games, university games, polytechnic games, Nigeria bankers’ games, Nigeria telecoms games, fast-moving-consumer-goods games. In 2015, an insurgent Facebook group organizing its own tournaments popped up, confusingly also called the NSF, for Nigeria Scrabble Friends. The actual NSF demanded the founder change the name, but he refused. “I could call it the ‘Nige Orian Scrabble Players,’ but it doesn’t show the affinity amongst us,” he said. “It doesn’t show the closeness.”
Outside General Gold’s compound off a dusty street on the outskirts of Lagos, there is a plaque from the Pan-African Scrabble Association that reads FOR HIS IMMENSE CONTRIBUTION FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF SCRABBLE IN AFRICA.
Gold retired from the army and left the barracks house with the orange tree, but his new compound has the same open-door policy. On an evening I dropped by, Olawale Fashina, the Champion of Ten Continents, was there, carefully placing tiles on the board, while Wellington Jighere, the 2015 world champion, looked on.
Fashina, an ebullient and witty player with a wide smile, had a meteoric Scrabble rise — he won the Nigerian and African titles before moving to Britain in 2005, where he overstayed his visa. The year he arrived, he won the British title. Trained as an accountant, he worked in the U.K. as a security guard and in his spare time played Scrabble. In 2012, he placed second and qualified to represent the U.K. in international competition, but his immigration status came under scrutiny. The Association of British Scrabble Players chairman and British Scrabblers wrote letters of support. His vicar wrote as well, but the immigration judge ruled against him. Fashina had to return to Nigeria.
It hit Fashina hard. “I was shy,” he explained. “It’s a big setback. Up-and-coming players in Nigeria, while I was away, they heard about my exploits even before I left. They heard I was doing well outside the country, so they were looking for a big, big guy, you know? So when I came back, quietly, you know, kind of unceremoniously…” He trailed off, his normally vivacious voice tightened. “I spoke to myself: You don’t need to brood over this. Dust yourself up and life goes on. So within a few months I started again.” Fashina recently bought a car and decided that being an Uber driver would grant him time during the day to play Scrabble whenever he wished.
Jighere had been staying with General Gold for a few months, spending hours hunched over a small red laptop playing Scrabble against the machine. Keeping up his skills, he told me, is a constant pursuit, and he estimates he knows 95 percent of the more than 270,000 acceptable words. (According to a 2016 study, the average 20-year-old native American English speaker knows 42,000 words.) He started playing at 14, when his older brother brought home a borrowed board. Six months in, he was already seeing the world differently. His brain churned with each word he saw. “Is this word playable? If it’s not playable, what are the words that can be played from this set?” he thought. “The name of a place, the name of someone, or whatever, it just happens automatically.” He was 20 when someone first told him there were proper Scrabble competitions — he was so thrilled he could barely believe it.
At Jighere’s first tournament in 2002, he tanked. “An expert in any particular field of human endeavor is someone who has made all the mistakes in that field,” he told me, grinning. In competitive Scrabble, players are grouped into three categories based on their rating: open, intermediate, and masters. Nigerians call their intermediate division the “zone of death” — with so many good players, the category is peppered with masters-level players who have been knocked down the rankings by other masters and are clawing their way back up.
By 2007, he placed third in the world, and the following year he won the African Scrabble Championship. Tournament prize money paid for his education, but when the two began to conflict, he chose Scrabble. He graduated college at 30 because he was constantly deferring courses for competition. Before the 2015 World English Language Scrabble Players Association Championship, he did nothing but study, poring over word lists and committing them to memory for four months. He vowed that after he won, he would quit.
“I was going to leave all this behind and go get a job and do something else with my life,” he told me. But after his victory, which came with roughly $20,000 USD, things took another turn: Jighere met Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa in Abuja and was awarded another $4,000. He enjoyed a brief spell of global and domestic fame. He decided he’d invested too much into the sport to stop now. And so he keeps playing, trying to create opportunities for the next generation by publicizing and promoting the game. He’s currently ranked seventh in the world.
Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, but 70 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, and the 16.5 percent unemployment rate in a population of 203.5 million leaves millions scraping to get by. Jighere and others believe the government does not do enough to capitalize on and promote their success. The appeal of prize money, coaching, and teaching positions is huge. If the game continues to grow, the financial opportunities could be even greater.
Nwali, the youngest Nigerian masters player, has his eye on just that payout. One night at General Gold’s house, the university student told me he planned to make Scrabble his profession when he graduated. He could be a Scrabble coach, open a Scrabble school, work for the Ministry of Youth and Sports. “I would like to help further the game,” he told me, solemnly. Nwali started playing in high school, chosen by teachers for his academics. He was a natural. At his second tournament, he won a car for his school.
While we spoke, the Champion of Ten Continents played the Father of Nigerian Scrabble, and try as he might, Nwali could not resist looking over at their board. Seated among the veterans, Nwali, lanky with a wispy beard, looked even younger. Spending so much time around such wisdom, he told me, had helped him perfect not just his game but his outlook on life. Older players often cautioned about the need for balance, and Nwali listened, keeping a daily schedule to plan his studies, Scrabble prep, time with his friends and girlfriend, and playing the drums in a band. Unlike his elders, Nwali benefited from a plethora of Scrabble phone apps that have made it easier to study. But recently Nwali had taken to emulating those before him, writing everything by hand. “I feel like I am lazy in using the phone,” he told me.
We looked through his Scrabble books, stacks of loose pages with five-letter words and his own handwritten notebooks in tiny print of the words he missed while playing. He had only made it four months prior, but the pages were already so tattered they fluttered out of the binding. In one column the letters of the word were listed in alphabetical order, and in the other the word itself appeared — ABCDENTU/ABDUCENT— pages and pages of capital letters in neat blue ballpoint pen so numerous they stopped looking like words but like codes, thousands of hieroglyphic etchings of greater meaning.
Nwali tested himself by covering the column with the actual word and looking only at the letters in alphabetical order: “I’ll see if I can remember the word there: AACHHLL,” he said.
“Can you?” I asked.
“CHALLAH,” he replied instantly.
Bukunmi Afolayan, the gospel singer and one of the best female Nigerian Scrabble players, took her 5-month-old daughter on a ten-hour bus ride to get to a National Championship in 2011, breastfeeding during rounds and walking away with a silver medal. Her son was 4 months old when she brought him to a 2014 international championship and took home the gold for best female player.
For all Scrabblers, it’s important to have a supportive partner, but for women in a traditional society, it’s even more so. When we met, Afolayan and I discussed another female player’s troubles and whether the lack of support forced many women to drop out of the game. “You have to be around men, play in the midst of men, and you have to travel here and there,” Afolayan said. She warned her own husband, a pastor, early in their courtship that she often traveled for the game. “He just fell in love with my passion,” she told me. It didn’t hurt that she brought home prize money and had a stable Scrabble government job. “There have been some benefits that he too is seeing,” she said.
The glaring gender imbalance in Scrabble is a problem all over the world, but players in Nigeria told me that is slowly changing. Women mentor other women, and Afolayan often hosted Febisola Olanipekun, a gregarious 26-year-old cybersecurity intern, in her home for practice rounds. Olanipekun lives alone in a small room with bright green walls tacked with paper where she has written motivational quotes. Stacked next to her mattress is a pile of Scrabble study materials, so used the spines have come off. When she started playing in college, her father wasn’t thrilled. Then at graduation she was awarded the Best Graduating Female Athlete prize. “My dad was behind there [shouting]: ‘That’s my daughter!’ So much for somebody who wasn’t ready to allow me play,” Olanipekun said, laughing. Now he has her medals on the walls of his office.
For the National Sports Festival last December, Nigeria’s biggest sports event, Olanipekun was supposed to play for the Lagos team, but when funding issues arose, rival Federal Capital Territory (FCT) quickly poached her — a sign that competition for good female players is picking up.
The next generation may change everything. Scrabble is now taught in over 50 schools in Lagos by three private companies that employ Scrabblers as teachers, and many of the best players are girls. The biggest challenge, owners told me, is to convince the Ministry of Education to teach Scrabble in every school in the country. “That’s huge. We feel if that happens, it will create a lot of opportunities,” Chioma Kelechi, who started a Scrabble in Schools initiative, told me. “It will improve our educational system.”
At Chrisland LGA, one of the first private schools to begin offering Scrabble as part of its curriculum, ten years ago, the best Scrabble player is Joanna Eke, a poised sixth-grade prodigy. “Scrabble isn’t just a game to me, it’s like a part of me,” she confessed.
Eke started playing Scrabble with her parents when she was 6 but didn’t get serious until her first competition, when she was in fourth grade. She placed third and won 150,000 Naira ($415). After that, she started studying hard, and a few tournaments later she placed first in the juniors category and won best female player. Eke’s favorite word is RETINA — a six-letter stem that can be combined with many other letters to make words. “For example, if you add G to it, it becomes INGRATE, GRANITE, TEARING,” she began to list.
Like all sports, Scrabble teaches humility. At another tournament, Eke placed third and started crying. Her mother told her not to be a spoilsport. Eke told me she reviewed the entire tournament in her mind and found consolation. “I still beat the smartest boy in school. So I won,” she said. The young man wasn’t pleased to be beaten by a girl. “‘I won fair and square,’” she told him. “Girls are independent and strong. And playing Scrabble is something that makes me happy. And if I wanna be happy, that’s not men’s choice to make.”
About the author: Sarah A. Topol is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. Her work has also been published in the Atlantic, Businessweek, GQ, Harper’s, the New Republic, Outside, and Travel + Leisure, among others. For over a decade, based in Cairo and Istanbul, Sarah reported from more than two dozen countries in the Middle East, former Soviet Union, and Africa. She recently moved to Brooklyn.