Dons test their tiddly-wink skills

The competitors pace the room, their eyes straining with concentration as beads of sweat gather on their knotted brows.

The competitors pace the room, their eyes straining with concentration as beads of sweat gather on their knitted brows.

The sharp minds of Cambridge are quick to calculate the probabilities of this shot and that shot, and at last they make it.

The tiddlywink lands, scattering plastic discs across the table and the competitors resume their pacing.

Yesterday, the action kicked off for the fourth year running at Bylaugh Hall, near Dereham, for the Somerset Invitation Tournament.

Some of Britain's highest-ranking players gathered to show off their skills and, most importantly some would say, to enjoy the local beer.

But the game is virtually unrecognisable from that which many of us played as children.

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Many of those enjoying the hospitality at Bylaugh are ranked in the world top 30 .

The tournament is composed chiefly of highly-trained scientific and mathematical minds and every shot is meticulously planned.

Competitors even produce torches intermittently to examine more closely stacks of winks (the small plastic discs which are propelled across the table).

The probable reaction of each wink is calculated, the angle of the squidger (the larger wink which launches the others into the air) perfectly positioned and each shot is weighed up with mathematical precision for its strategic value in the game.

Even the winks are designed and made in Italy to competition standard.

Dr Stuart Sage, 44, a lecturer in physiology, who has been organising the event for 20 years, said: "The competition started when my parents ran a pub in Somerset, hence the name. I used to take the Cambridge University winks society down there for a weekend after New Year to play.

"After they retired we were stuck really, we went to Gloucester once, then did four years running in Brussels.

"But then we found this - now we come to Norfolk for the local beer. We get loads of it from the Wolf's brewery every time we come.

"We usually play seriously for about six or seven hours and then it descends into drinking games with a nice pint of real ale.

"I would say the appreciation of a really good beer is integral to winks, actually. We certainly encourage it."

As its name suggests, winks was best enjoyed when tiddly and began as the pastime of those under the influence in England's alehouses, rising to fame in the 1890s in drawing rooms across England.

The competitive winks enjoyed by Dr Sage and his Cambridge team first came about in 1954 in Cambridge.

"It was developed to be the only thing Cambridge could beat Oxford at, and we're still doing it. I helped to win against Oxford just last year," grins PhD student Patrick Driscoll, 27, who is ranked 15 in the world.

"I would say it is certainly very addictive. I just saw it at the societies fair at Cambridge and thought it looked interesting.

"That's what happened to Stuart and he's been playing for 25 years now."

Matt Fayers, 30, said: "What appealed to me about the game was that it is both silly and very serious.

"And I've been playing for 11 years now, since I started at the university."

Many of those gathered for the tournament agree.

Tim Hunt, 33, a computer programmer, said: "I think it comprises all the right elements of skill and strategy but it is still fun. It's a serious game, but we really enjoy coming here, having a few drinks and playing it.

"I chose it because it is a nice civilised game which you can play by socialising and it has a good competitive aspect.

"Many of the people playing here today are world-ranked, most are in the top 30.

"And I would say there are thousands of people playing winks all over the world; there are certainly 250 with world-ranking.

"And last year was the Golden Jubilee celebration, so there were a lot of dinners and parties organised by the English Tiddlywinks Association in order to raise its profile.

"It was a lot of fun."

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