SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Scrabble players will gather this coming week in France for the latest global Scrabble competition. Now the reigning world champion is a Nigerian. He clinched the title in Australia last year, defeating competition from all over the English-speaking world. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on what makes Nigeria the world's Scrabble superpower.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Nigerians are passionate about Scrabble.
ANTHONY IKOLO: People love Scrabble.
QUIST-ARCTON: That's Prince Anthony Ikolo, the national senior team coach. And Nigerians excel at Scrabble.
WELLINGTON JIGHERE: We are currently ranked number one nation in the world for Scrabble, and that tells you how tough the competition is here - in Scrabble here. We are number two for close to a decade behind United States of America. Now we have risen to number one. We intend to remain number one for a long while.
QUIST-ARCTON: He should know - introducing 33-year-old Wellington Jighere. He was crowned global Scrabble champion last November in Australia, besting a Briton.
JIGHERE: In the world, we have the highest number of persons in the top 100 rated players in the world all around. So that tells you that we have as much as 20-30 tough masters in Nigeria that can really give you a tough fight any time, any day.
QUIST-ARCTON: So why Scrabble?
JIGHERE: I didn't exactly choose Scrabble. I ran into some friends who were tournament players and they told me that if I could do this well against them, that means I should come to the next tournament. And I was like, you mean they play this in tournaments? OK, let's go (laughter).
QUIST-ARCTON: That was in 2002. Today, Jighere sits atop the global Scrabble tournament ladder. He's a shy, softly spoken man with a broad smile and favors fedoras, earning him the nickname The Cat in the Hat. But Jighere doesn't like labels. Scrabble, for him, is a profession.
JIGHERE: Yeah, Scrabble is serious business. You can't afford to waste too much energies doing unnecessary chatter. During a tournament, I think - I see it as business time. And there is no time to be joking around (laughter).
QUIST-ARCTON: Young Nigerians, too, are doing well. Ten-year-old Angela Osaigbovo placed second in the youth category at the Nigeria national players Scrabble competition in Lagos. Relaxed and confident, Angela waves her Scrabble board behind her head with a big smile. She began playing aged 5 and has been competing since she was 6.
ANGELA OSAIGBOVO: Scrabble, for me, is a fun way of using my academics to help me in my hobbies and after-school life. I'm good in math and literacy, and I think that's due to Scrabble. I like using premiums or bingos, which are seven-letter words such as zaniest and players.
QUIST-ARCTON: Angela's mother, Toyin Osaigbovo, is delighted her daughter has fallen in love with Scrabble. She says Angela possesses what Nigeria has in abundance - focus and determination.
TOYIN OSAIGBOVO: Nigerians are very determined, dogged people. And once we set our minds to something, we want to achieve it.
QUIST-ARCTON: But there's a common complaint - insufficient funding and sponsorship. Coach Ikolo says cash prizes are welcome for what has been patchy government assistance for Scrabble, which was given official recognition as a sport in Nigeria in 1996, he says. Ikolo says more needs to be done to support Scrabble financially.
IKOLO: We don't value that Nigeria is now ranked the best playing Scrabble nation in the world and we have the world Scrabble champion, Wellington Jighere.
QUIST-ARCTON: Nigeria also is famous for its successful short word strategy that racks up the points. Coach Ikolo is credited with championing this defensive way of playing that he says gives Nigerian scrabblers the edge.
IKOLO: The short words help you to be defensive. But when it's time to be offensive, then we know that we are playing those long words also.
QUIST-ARCTON: The atmosphere at the championship in Lagos is noisy and garrulous. The winning pot for Scrabble master Jighere is about $500. The Nigerians were revving up to compete in the global Scrabble encounter in Lille, France, starting today. Ten-year-old wordsmith Angela Osaigbovo warned would-be competitors...
ANGELA: Watch out because Nigeria is coming with force.
QUIST-ARCTON: However, Angela's disappointed mother, Toyin Osaigbovo, tells NPR her daughter was refused a French visa so won't be able to compete in Lille since the youth championship begins today. Wellington Jighere announced yesterday that most Nigerian players who applied had also been denied visas for France. Now Jighere says they've been told to report to the French Embassy on Monday morning to be issued with visas. So scrabblers, you're warned - the Nigerian champions are on the war path. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Lagos.
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