The man who swallowed a dictionary
Beck Eleven meets the truck driver who swallowed a dictionary.
It's one of those winter nights where the fog is so thick and low you can barely see one lamp post to the next. Smoke from Blue Thorogood's tobacco roll-ups makes the air in his Rangiora bedsit more or less the same consistency.
Thorogood flips the cap off a Waikato Draught with his yellow Bic lighter and it's game on. The beer, the smoke, the heavy concentration - it's got the air of a lads' poker night but this is Scrabble. Serious Scrabble. Thorogood's opponent (and partner of three-and-a-bit years), Mandy Phillip, is using a computer for help. Phillips and her computer are streaking ahead but she's not too relaxed with the wide score gap because "Blue's endgame is amazing". That and he has just been ranked New Zealand's number one Scrabble player.
The game is only a few moves in. They've played "cuirass", "fud", "jutes" and "dogman".
I see a scramble of letters on Thorogood's rack. He sees "toenail" or "elation' or "tonalite". He doesn't always know exactly what the words mean but he knows how to form them and how to play them well on the board.
The 51-year-old drives a truck for Chemwaste Industries removing hazardous chemicals left by homeowners in the residential red zone. A typical day sees him rise at 5am and drive to work by 7.30am to classify, sort and dispose of toxic goods like paint, gardening poisons, dieldrin, pentachlorophenol and such. By the time he gets home about 6pm- ish, it's been a long day so he's usually too tired for word games - which is where Friday nights come in, time for beer, fags and Scrabble.
The national Scrabble champs were held in Christchurch in early June. The event went mostly under the radar except 8-year-old Lewis Hawkins making headlines for coming first in fifth division.
The first division winner was Thorogood, who reckons Lewis' success at that age is amazing. Lewis and Thorogood and a handful of other Kiwis will be heading to the World Scrabble Championships in the Czech Republic in December. Thorogood has already booked the time off.
"The boss is pretty relaxed and supportive of Scrabble. He calls me 'atypical'." Thorogood didn't pick up a lettered tile until he was 30. He was unemployed and hanging round a community centre in Auckland because he'd heard some people gathered there to play chess. No-one turned up but three grey-haired women with a Scrabble board.
"Play with us," they said. And he beat them all.
They suggested Thorogood join their Friday night Scrabble club. His only thought was: "What? They have Scrabble clubs?" One of the women wrote down the address on a scrap of paper which he promptly filed in his wallet and forgot.
A couple of months later, he found the note again. It said "Scrabble Night, Friday. Mt Albert." It happened to be a Friday and he had nothing else to do, so made his way to the location. Game by game, it became apparent the Ngati Kahungunu kid who grew up in Wairau was a natural.
His vocabulary wasn't extensive so he played using everyday language while his more seasoned opponents laid down words he'd never heard of. He started reading the dictionary and learning new words. Where most people would see a jumble of letters, Thorogood could see several possibilities.
"It's not really about tricky words. It's about board management and [your opponent] not buggering up the board. You have to give something to get something." He stuck with the club for six or seven years before drifting off and giving up.
He dipped back in after a two- year hiatus and in the early 1990s managed second place in the B-grade of a national tournament.
"I look at the games I lost - not the games I won - and I think back about what I could have done to prevent that.
"I've lost a fair few and come second a lot. I'm the proverbial bridesmaid."
However, he was a solo father and his son had just turned 5. "He'd started school, so it wasn't ideal to be tripping around. I think I missed it but it didn't really matter."
Then, in 2004, the national tournament was being held in Auckland and Thorogood was going to be there at the same time. He wasn't sure about his chances but he entered anyway.
"I'd had a gap, two revised dictionaries had come out in that that time and I just didn't contemplate getting back into it.
"But I put a couple of months' work into it and ended up winning. Well, that surprised me." He has since won places in World Championships in Malaysia in 2009 and Warsaw in 2011.
Despite his natural skill on the Scrabble board, he says he can take or leave the studying side of it. There are plenty of CDs at his house but no stacks of dictionaries. However, a couple of photocopied A4 pages of words are pinned by the toilet.
They're from the updated dictionary - a Scrabble player's version of toilet reading material. "To me, words are like bullets, like ammunition. The game is won with the more bullets you've got in your armoury.
"You need to know when to let loose and when to hold back because of the situation, what letters are left in the bag and what might be to come.
"Can one tile still be dangerous to you? You have to think about it. There's a lot of strategy.
"I try to play so my turn means something. It's not haphazard. I play each word for a reason."
The Christchurch group meets on Fridays in Sydenham and there are usually about 25 players from competitors to hobbyists but Thorogood struggles to turn up because his day is already long and it's too expensive making two return trips from Rangiora in one day.
It's social, too. At some tournaments he'd "get on the piss" the night before, sometimes not - it doesn't seem to affect his play.
The South Island champs are a warm-up and there are some excellent players in the North Island, he says. "But I can't afford to flip-flop all around the country playing Scrabble.
"It's all for the love really.
"When you're playing Scrabble, the bills don't matter, quakes don't matter, nothing matters. Funnily enough, I do it to relax. It chills me out. There's no stress because my mind is on the game."
His favourite tile is the blank one. It's worth zero points but you can use it as any letter so it gets you out of scrapes and leads to huge scores. If you use all seven tiles in one go, it's called a "bingo" and gives you a 50-point bonus. A chess clock is used, each player gets 25 minutes and 10 points are deducted for every minute a player goes over time. These competitive types keep their own score sheets and count the tiles, crossing out each letter as it is drawn from the bag and placed on the board.
Thorogood uses a bigger score sheet because his eyes "aren't that great". Back in the smoky room, the score gap between Thorogood and Phillips (and her computer) is closing.
He's squeezing in three-letter words, in clever places making it difficult for Phillips to play.
The couple met through internet dating in 2009. She fell for his "lovely face and articulate emails". Once they'd exchanged a few emails, she suggested they meet. He replied saying that would be difficult because he was in Malaysia at the World Scrabble Tournament. She was impressed.
"I think I fell in love before we met. I love words and I love emailing and I was able to express myself freely. Words helped us fall in love.
"We used to play with loud music too because he said I had to learn to play with distraction - it hasn't worked though," she says, and they laugh again.
As Thorogood says: "We pretty much want the same thing, no hassles. My honey supports me 100 per cent and that's so good."
Soon enough, Phillips was playing more Scrabble than she used to. She was a pretty good player but in Thorogood, she'd met her match, hence the computer assistance.
However, she has beaten him once without any online help. It was clearly a memorable event for Thorogood.
"I know that game all right. It was on my birthday. I drew tiles like a dog but that's no excuse." He's been drawing tiles like a dog tonight, too, and the game is in the balance.
In the end, he wins 432 to 422.
He laughs just that little bit louder.
"Golfers win millions. I somehow found I was good at the only game where you can make nothing.
"But I'll drink to that," he says, and finishes his Waikato Draught.