To most casual observers of Scrabble, the game is a pastime. But in Senegal, typically better known for the Dakar Rally, it is a sport. And it's taken very seriously – especially this week, as the country plays host to the 37th Francophone Scrabble World Championships.
Mbaye Mboup, who presides over the Senegalese Scrabble Federation, is willing to concede that it is more of a "cerebral sport." But, he points out as he races from spot to spot keeping tabs on developments, Scrabble is "a competition that lasts two hours. You don't have time to move around, you don't have time to look anywhere. All you can do is concentrate.
"Afterward," he adds, "you're exhausted, like someone who ran kilometers."
His government agrees. Its Sports Ministry has provided key support for the high-profile tournament, which draws some 600 players from more than 20 countries across five continents. It ponied up nearly $130,000 for an enormous tent to house the main matches and gave its team warm-up suits with "Scrabble" written in letter tiles across the back. And, says a local sports journalist, President Abdoulaye Wade gave an audience to all the competitors – whom he addressed as "athletes."
Sport or not, the Senegalese are top contestants in Scrabble – a noteworthy achievement given the country's 40 percent literacy rate. In 2000, pairs team Ndonga Sylla and Arona Gaye became the first Africans to win a Scrabble world title. Since then, Mr. Sylla has won two more. At last year's championships in Canada, Senegal won three of the four top prizes.
The contest this year appeared to get off to a good start, with Mamadou Yauck clinching the title for junior "blitz" Scrabble, in which players have one minute to find their word. His best play? "Levurier. 72 points," he said after some reflection.
But the soft-spoken high-schooler, who said he studies the dictionary daily, was stripped of his title Thursday when officials discovered that the 16-year-old was competing in a 14- to 15-year-old category.
Mamadou Lamine Diop, competing in the "open" rounds, said that a commitment to the sport can be challenging for a young man. Few people play in his small town, the 17-year-old says, adding that his friends tease him for his dedication to the game over cards or soccer.
Herve Bohbot, a French official from the International Scrabble Federation, says that Senegal is rare in its commitment to encouraging schools to introduce students to Scrabble, and empowering its federation to find the best players.
Gustave Anato, vice-president of Benin's Scrabble federation, says his team was unable to compete in Montreal last year when they were denied visas. But getting to Senegal wasn't easy: The team traveled five days by bus, across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal. Of course, they made good use of the journey: "We studied and amused ourselves with words. After all, we had the time."