Set theory, universal algebra and Scrabble

Posted on April 12, 2019

Dr Harry Wiggins is a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. In 2018, he won the NATHouse Best First-Year Lecturer award. His field of interests include set theory, universal algebra, complex numbers, mathematics education… and Scrabble!  
Dr Wiggins has just been named the South African Scrabble Champion. He’s off to represent South Africa at the World English Language Scrabble® Players Association (WESPA) Scrabble Championship in Goa, India from 15-20 October. Tukkievaria caught up with him to find out more about his passion for the game. 
1. How did you get into Scrabble?
I use to play Afrikaans scrabble with my mom and aunt, Miriam Meiring. My mom didn’t enjoy playing scrabble with me, because I was too competitive, but my aunt didn’t mind at all. We would play scrabble the whole night through over weekends. And as a bonus she would spoil be with a lovely eatables she baked. Unfortunately she passed away and I stopped playing scrabble due to schoolwork. 
After completing high school in Worcester, I went to UCT.  My undergraduate subjects and honours degree kept me insanely busy. However, when I started my master’s degree, I had a little bit of free time on my hands and I wanted to take up a hobby. I chose scrabble and joined a scrabble club in Pinelands, Cape Town in 2009. At this club, I played my very first English scrabble game and lost horribly, but I didn’t mind. I got to learn new and cool English words. 
I was bitten by the bug and wanted to take the game a little more serious. The players at the club told me that scrabble competitions existed. I was decided to give it a go and rest is history as they say.
2. What does it feel like to be the SA champion?
I am on cloud nine. The competition was very stiff with lots of experienced players. Many have been playing scrabble a lot longer than I have. We had over 40 players from South African and even three visitors from Zambia. 
The tournament took place in Huddle Park, Linksfield in Johannesburg. It was organised by Andrew Goldberg and Steven Gruzd. The competition was 2 days of 16 games. I started with a loss, but my not-giving up spirit I ended with 12 out of 16 wins and won the tournament for the first time. 
I have taken part in this tournament a few times, but each time coming short. So it is exciting and humbling to know all my previous experiences culminated to me winning this tournament and I hope to repeat this triumph again in 2020. 
3. You’re a mathematician and people often think people can’t be a word person and a number person. Are you a statistical anomaly?
I don’t think I’m a statistical anomaly. At the heart, all mathematicians enjoys solving puzzles. We just call it problems or research problems. We apply our problem-solving skills in different scenarios. Some in mathematics, some in applied mathematics, some in financial mathematics and some in biological mathematics.
I decided to give a go of my puzzling solving skills to scrabble. Every time it is my turn to play, I get to solve a puzzle: Given the 7 tiles on my rack, the situation of the board, the current scores of each player and what tiles is to come, I have to make a move that scores well and have the potentially of putting myself in a good position the next round to score well again. Sometimes the plan works and sometimes you have to do damage control. 
Furthermore, mathematics and words are all around us. This board game combines numbers and letters in a very fun and exciting way.  And if you enjoy learning, which we hope all students and everybody at University does, you will enjoy the game scrabble. You get to play really awesome words like: GOUJONS (strips of deep fried fish), HONGI (to greet a friend by touching nose to nose), AXOLOTL (a type of Mexican salamander), MESOPHYL (a soft tissue of a leaf). 
Dr Harry Wiggins, the South African Scrabble Champion, will represent SA at the World English Language Scrabble Players Association Scrabble Championship in India.
4. Do you get a bigger kick out of calculating the word scores or coming up with words?
I enjoy both. Calculating scores becomes quite fun if you get to make one move that scores over 100 points. It is rare, but it does happen. For example if you have DIIINOS on the board and there is a V at the right spot on the board you can play DIVISION for (2+1+4+1+1+1+1+1)*9 + 50 = 158 points in one go. Remember, if you add 7 tiles on the board, it is called a bingo. So you get a bonus 50 points. Getting 158 points for one move can help you going from behind to leading comfortably.
It is also quite thrilling coming up with words, small or big. Every game is unique and it is exciting putting your hand in the bag and seeing what tiles you picked up and what the board looks like and what words to play to score well. You need to be eagle-eyes to anagram the letters and put it on the board. Some of my dream words (words I would still like to play) includes: FIREWATER (strong alcoholic spirits), XENOPUS (a frog native to South Africa), ZOLPIDEM (a drug to treat insomnia), SPARAXIS (a South African plant), VONGOLE (Italian method of cooking clams).
5. Would you be willing to have a friendly scrabble challenge with an academic from the Department of English or someone from the applied language and linguistic studies fields?
I would have no problem playing scrabble with somebody from the English department or a person studying linguistics. Hopefully the person would be happy to play the CSW15 lexicon. This is the lexicon we use in South Africa scrabble tournaments and this is the lexicon we are going to use at the WESPA World Scrabble Championship 15-20 October in Goa, India. 
I play the tiles and not the opponent. They might have a good vocabulary, but my ten years of playing scrabble has harnessed my thinking skills for the game. I think vocabulary is 40% but skill is 60%. It doesn’t help you have the bigger vocabulary, but you cannot make strategic moves or realise with the letters AEIOUQS you can form the large evergreen tree: SEQUOIA.
6. What’s so cool about Scrabble and what do you enjoy the most about it?
Scrabble is a very fun board game. I wish more school kids and university students would take on this board game. You get to play with numbers and letters in a very fun way. It is not scary, as you don’t have to write a 20 000 word essay or have to study for a calculus exam. It is so easy to play scrabble.  You can play scrabble Facebook or on ISC, with friends. And if you feel brave you can try competitions to showcase your scrabble stamina and word knowledge. 
I enjoy the game, because it’s my hobby/sport. It’s a fun way to meeting interesting people and it offers interesting puzzles to solve. I also enjoy the fact that I get to learn new words, which I would not have encountered otherwise. 
7. Do you play any other games?
I do not play other board games, but I enjoy reading, listening to music, watching series and nature.
- Author Shakira Hoosain

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