War of Words

It was still early in the game, but Mary Atwood was feeling confident. She had just stacked “NOVA” atop “VOX” to take a 177 to 62 lead over Jim Kramer, and the triple word was blocked. But Jim’s fortunes shifted when he ran “POETIZER” down the center of the board for 54 points. He then outflanked Mary’s “BRO” and “TENTER” with “IMAGE” and “QUIDS.” The match was now tied. While Kramer made his comeback, Lisa Odom watched her chances of victory disappear as her husband, Steve Pellinen, dropped “BLEARED” to complete a 225-point trifecta with “FIDDLERS” and “ERECTING.”

One Tuesday night not long ago, thirty-two members of the Twin Cities Scrabble Club were hunched over their racks in the cramped, wood-paneled basement of the Twin Cities Bridge Center in South Minneapolis. Mostly, there was silence, but for the sporadic rattling of tiles and announcing of scores. This is a scene repeated nightly all across the nation, in libraries, community centers, and coffee shops. But few of the two hundred and fifty-odd groups that are affiliated with the National Scrabble Association are as dedicated or talented as Club 42. John Williams, the NSA’s executive director, calls the Twin Cities “one of the world’s great Scrabble towns.”

Williams and the NSA sponsor two hundred official tournaments a year in the U.S. and Canada. They estimate that there are twenty-five thousand competitive players worldwide. Last year’s Scrabble All-Stars Championship in Providence, Rhode Island, had a $100,000 purse and was televised on ESPN. Even Hollywood has noticed; two feature films about the tournament scene are in the works.

As the din of postgame socializing began to fill the room, Kramer dropped “TYPED” to seal a hard-fought 365–331 victory. It was an impressive comeback, but he’d been the heavy pregame favorite. Atwood has a respectable tournament rating of 1417, but Kramer’s rating is 2012—the highest in North America. And Lisa Odom, who ended up getting whupped 472-395, is no slouch on the national scene, either. For most of the last decade she has been a regular fixture on the continent’s top-ten list, as well as being both the highest ranked woman and the highest ranked African-American.

Unlikely as it may seem, both of these nationally ranked players regularly lose on club nights. The random nature of the game accounts for some of this—even players who have memorized all 120,000 words in the Official Tournament and Club Word List (this includes everything from the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary sold in stores, plus the naughty words) are still at the mercy of the tiles. Mostly, though, it speaks to the quality of the competition. Despite stereotypes, the room has few of the “blue hairs” that Stephan Fatsis mocks in Word Freak, his best-selling book about the competitive Scrabble scene. Club members, in fact, are as diverse as their vocabularies. Rob Robinsky is an eighteen-year-old chemistry major at Macalester. (He landed “CTENOID” during his game.) Angelina Scroggins is a forty-nine-year-old data specialist originally from the Philippines (“CHRUMB”). Patrick Suglia is a forty-one-year-old chiropractor and holistic counselor (“EPINAOS”). Ebrahima Sallah is a twenty-seven-year-old phone repair tech born in Gambia (“YONI”). Sue Hoehn is a sixty-year-old travel agent (“KAIF”).

Word knowledge is not word comprehension, necessarily. “I don’t know what it means,” Hoehn admitted regarding ‘kaif,’ “but I’ve been studying my four-letter words.” (It’s “hemp smoked to produce euphoria.”) In fact, only Scroggins knew the origin of her thirty-point play—and that’s because she made it up. Playing a phony might start a family feud during a living room game, but in the tournament and club scene, bluffing is a respected, though risky, strategy. If your opponent correctly calls your bluff, the word comes off the board and you lose your turn. If your opponent challenges and the word proves valid, the humbled opponent loses a turn.

One of the great things about Scrabble—and no doubt a major reason why Hasbro sells two million units a year in the U.S., with virtually no marketing—is that you don’t have to memorize all twenty-one words that contain a Q but not a U in order to garner some intellectual cache from a game well played. A few championship-caliber Scrabblers do trade tiles in search of glory, but most play for the same reason Odom does. “It’s just a fun game,” she said. “But I do want to win.”—Tim Bewer






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