WHEN it comes to Scrabble, Nigerians are on top of their game. In November they retained the team title at the world championships in Nairobi. They boast more top-100 players than any other country. But the impact of board games in Africa’s most populous country goes beyond these world-class Scrabble-meisters. Board games are played across Nigeria, from indigenous games like ayo that make use of counters or pebbles (mancala is a similar game in the United States), to chess and Monopoly.

It is impossible to quantify how many Nigerians play board games, but there is no doubt that they are more popular in the better-educated south. Prince Anthony Ikolo, the coach of Nigeria’s national Scrabble team, estimates that 4,000 Scrabblers play in more than 100 clubs around the country (compared with around 2,000-2,500 members in 152 clubs in America and Canada together). The Niger Delta states and Lagos are home to many of the country’s Scrabble champions. Wellington Jighere, who won the world championship in 2015, is from the oil-rich city of Warri, which is particularly renowned for producing world-class players.

On the national tournament circuit, cash prizes can reach $10,000. Prestigious schools have chess and Scrabble teams, and there are university tournaments. Lagos, the country’s teeming commercial capital, got its own Monopoly board in 2012. The property-buying game was made an official sport in Lagos state in 2016. In September that year, more than 1,200 students competed for the top prize of a 600,000 naira (now worth $1,662) education grant, in the process breaking a world record for the number of students playing Monopoly.

Board games are mainly a middle-class pursuit, although Ludo, draughts and their ilk are also popular among the less educated. Many Nigerians have a competitive streak: the country’s unofficial motto, “Naija no dey carry last,” can be roughly translated as “Nigerians strive to finish first.” Those with an intellectual bent therefore often relish challenging others at Monopoly or Scrabble. Many say their skills were nurtured during long holidays and evenings without regular electricity, by parents who were keen for their offspring to spend time “IQ building” rather than idling. Board games also allow Nigerians to focus on something other than the daily wahala, a word for trouble or stress (be it watching the hours tick by in urban traffic jams, appeasing a corrupt policeman or finding the money to keep the family generator running). And in a country where millions of Evangelical Christians follow a prosperity gospel and wealth is often idolised, Monopoly can temporarily allow Nigerians to indulge their fantasies.