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[whitespace] 24-Hour Scrabble People

The competitive Scrabble underground of word freaks, geeks, and just plain regular people is growing . . . tile by tile

By Sara Bir

Between Aug. 17 and 22, 700 people from all over the country and beyond gathered in San Diego to play a board game for hours and hours and hours. They played all day long with an afternoon break for lunch. Then, after official play ceased, they congregated in a hotel meeting room to play far into the night, just for fun.

The game is Scrabble, and to these hundreds of people, it's not just a thing to play every now and then at parties or family reunions. It's not even a hobby. Scrabble is a way of life, and for one week at the 2002 National Scrabble Championship, they are free to give themselves entirely over to their communal obsession.

"SCRABBLE: IT'S YOUR WORD AGAINST MINE" reads a larger-than-life Scrabble board positioned to meet those coming into the San Diego Concourse. It's a Sunday, the first day of official play at the tournament, and the afternoon block of rounds is about to begin. Players, all kinds of people--middle-aged, overweight, dorky men; professional-looking older women; handsome, young hipster guys; and a good representation of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans--scurry around toting cymbal cases, which present the illusion that some weird kind of drummer's convention is going on, but that's how avid players transport their custom-made boards.

All around, people shake hands or hug pals from the tournament circuit whom they haven't seen in a while. Others size up the postings of ratings--who's playing whom in what division. Eventually, the players all filter into the auditorium and find their assigned tables.

An official-sounding voice announces the start of play, the buzz of anticipation in the air gives over to anxiousness, and for the next few hours, the prevailing sound is the unoiled squeak of hundreds of lazy Susans revolving and the clink of thousands of tiles. It's a ghostly, oddly thrilling sound, the mounting call of hundreds of unseen crickets and rattlesnakes.

The biannual National Scrabble Championship is the biggest of about 175 tournaments in the United States and Canada sanctioned by the National Scrabble Association, a group that helms about 10,000 members who make an effort to set aside a fair chunk of their lives for Scrabble. During the nationals, the NSA website is updated play by play. People around the world are following the action.

"At the World Championship in December, we had 3 million hits in five days," says John D. Williams, sounding like a proud father. Williams is executive director of the NSA. He used to play competitively himself but hasn't for several years, mainly because running the NSA doesn't leave him time to study. For his efforts, he's been called the Johnny Appleseed of Scrabble.

"I guess it's a compliment," he chuckles, admitting that his efforts to promote the game have not only gotten people involved, they've gotten people hooked, turning them into Scrabble junkies. "We've grown every year for the last 15 or 20 years. There are more books on strategy now, and the book Word Freak helped a lot too. It's a really good time for Scrabble."

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Round Tables, Square Tiles: Scrabble's just as close as a Mill Valley pizza joint

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Freak Out

The book Williams is talking about is Stephan Fatsis' bestselling Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, which was recently released in paperback. In the process of writing the book, Fatsis not only hung out with Scrabble players for three years, he became a competitive player of note himself. Fatsis was at the Nationals this year, playing in division two.

"When I met these people that I describe in the book, I got sucked in really quickly, and I started studying and playing in tournaments," Fatsis recalls. "I was way more interested in playing than I was in journalism; I honestly wanted to be a player."

Word Freak is packed with Scrabble stories; everyone has a Scrabble story. Hasbro sells 2 million sets of Scrabble a year with minimal promotion, and someone is buying them. My family's story is that we played every year during our beach vacations when I was growing up. There were battles of epic proportions about the legality of words. To this day, my brother insists that "MOONPILOT" counts ("It's a guy who flies on the moon--an astronaut!"); it doesn't.

The differences between leisurely and competitive Scrabble play are few though vital enough to make the two almost totally separate games. Competitive players play one-on-one, with a 25-minute limit per player per game. They keep track of turns with a chess clock. Players are penalized 10 points for every minute they go over.

This is a great contrast to living-room games of Scrabble, where one turn can take 25 minutes. Also, competitive Scrabble players don't use the familiar blonde wood tiles, which can be "brailed" (feeling the surface of a tile while it's still in the bag in order to draw a specific letter). Instead, they use colored plastic ProTiles, whose letters are silk-screened on. Idle chitchat--"coffeehousing"--is frowned on as a way of distracting an opponent.

Competitive Scrabble's defining factor, though, is the vast pool of words its players draw from. Unlike leisurely play, where memorizing the Scrabble Player's Dictionary might be seen as sneaky and underhanded, in competitive Scrabble, players study lists and lists of Q-without-U words, two- and three-letter words, anagrams, and vowel dumps, words packed with vowels and few consonants. The brain becomes a word bank, and the board a cross between a battlefield and a canvass.

Phony words (like "MOONPILOT") are totally acceptable, as long as they go unchallenged. This is called "bluffing," and while every Scrabble player has done it, in competitive Scrabble, it's not unethical, just risky.

Very, very top players have usually digested 85 percent or 90 percent of the words on the Official Tournament and Club Word List, or OWL. Words in the OWL really exist and really mean something, but at the same time, most are so obscure and unfamiliar that, when spoken or read, they seem like gibberish: "OORIE," "QWERTY," "GOX."

Given that probably no one but a Scrabble player knows these words, they might as well be in Scrabblese, not English. Most players don't even bother with the meaning of the words, though, because memorizing some 2 1/2 million words is daunting enough.

"It's very determinist," explains Fatsis. "If the word is in the book, you can play it in Scrabble. If it's not in the book, you can't play it. But you don't know when all of those words you've learned will ever be useful. So there is this constant anxiety about being able to retrieve the right word at the right moment. The beautiful challenge is that you're handed these seven letters and your clock is ticking, and your job is to solve the puzzle."

Knowing words will only get you so far, though; you also have to play them right, fully exploiting each tile's potential. "When we play, there is strategy," Fatsis says. "We know the two-letter words, the three-letter words. You don't use a blank unless you're going to use all seven of your tiles. When two great players play each other, you know that their resources are really being maximized. It's more fun."

Heck yeah, winning is fun. That's why many casual living-room players can still recall their greatest Scrabble coup, or the one time they played all seven of their tiles (a "bingo"). Little do we, the Scrabble day-trippers of America, realize that our games are only scratching the surface.

"Very often," says Fatsis, "the great frustration at home is that [players will] find the correct word, but they might not be able to play it because they don't know that you can put an A next to an A to make the word 'AA,' which is a type of lava. So knowing these very fundamental things, there's a greater chance for that magical word that you've discovered [to] actually get played for, say, 82 points."

Fatsis calls this the "eureka moment." "That's what's great about it," he says, "that it allows you to experience those spasms of excitement frequently. That's something that everybody, whether they're a Scrabble player or not, loves to experience."

For the Love of the Game

Kevin Koch, a 29-year-old self-proclaimed board-game lover from Cotati, still remembers how his initial eureka moment drew him into the game. "I did that first bingo, and the high I got--I couldn't believe I did it! And I wanted to do more. It was like a drug addiction," he says.

"Other games are very dry, very esoteric," he continues. "They're not colorful. Every time I play Scrabble, I learn new words. And every word is different. This game makes learning the English language fun. Most people think definitions are unimportant and just want to score points in the game. But to me, what makes Scrabble so great is that I'm getting more education and developing my language while I'm playing."

Koch got into Scrabble four years ago, and he very quickly decided to pour his energies into becoming an expert. "I studied really hard, and I don't mean to sound conceited--I'm smarter than I look--and I progressed at a very fast rate. I did enough studying and training to probably put that amount of time into getting an MD or Ph.D."

Eventually, Koch says, he got so good it took the fun out if it. "I had less incentive to try to study." He no longer plays in tournaments but still goes to the Mill Valley Scrabble Club every now and then (see sidebar).

Such cycles of burnout are not uncommon, but, as with most competitive sports, a fervid Scrabble player's greatest lament is that a realistic lifestyle--job, family, sleep--is not conducive to being a top-level player. Basically, studying Scrabble has to consume your entire existence, and even with a $25,000 first-place prize at the nationals, studying Scrabble is not an easy way to make a living.

Joel Sherman, the 2002 winner (otherwise known as GI Joel, as in "gastrointestinal" because of his many stomach problems), lives off of a dwindling inheritance and has made playing Scrabble the No. 1 priority in his life. Sherman's unusual lifestyle is all the proof you need that being one of the world's best Scrabble players is hardly a fast lane to fame and fortune.

"Every Scrabble player hopes that it will get bigger, particularly the players at the top, who would like nothing more than to be able to make a living at it," says Fatsis, who should know because he hangs out with these people regularly. "But will it ever get to the point that ESPN is televising the world championships? I'd say no. It's hard for lay people to get."

That's much easier to do when the games are unfolding right in front of you. At the nationals, observing hundreds of simultaneous games in progress from the balcony is eerily arresting: the charged silence, the whispers mounting to a perceptible buzz until a judge gets up on the mic, librarian-like, with a "Shhhh . . ."

The players' tension is palpable, but it's a feeling of excitement rather than dread. Sometimes a hand shoots up in the air, accompanied by a muted call of "Challenge!", and one of the dozen or so word judges, who otherwise circulate around the room in random trajectories, scurries over with the OWL to settle whether a word is a phony or legit.

You can taste the concentration and sense brains reaching lightning-quick into their word banks. You can feel the joy of chaos as it is tamed into letters and then words. Hundreds of thousands of words. It's mind-boggling.

"The amazing thing about Scrabble that most people don't realize," reveals Koch with a stunned reverence, "is that there are more different ways for a Scrabble game to turn out than there are atoms in the entire universe. The number of ways a game of Scrabble can turn out is virtually infinite."

One Big Scrabbled Family

Outside of words, Scrabble, unlike other gaming subcultures, does not have a unifying aesthetic. There's no D&D land of goblins, wizardry, and fringed suede pirate boots. Obsessive Scrabble players dwell not within the fuzzy parameters of fantasy but in a world whose boundaries are calculable and definite, if insanely complex.

Those boundaries do, though, attract a certain type. "Scrabble players are--no offense--often old ladies, often anal-retentive," confides Koch. "English itself is an anal-retentive thing."

Additionally, the overlooked math-oriented nature of the game--letters are, after all, symbols--draws a lot of accountants, programmers, and the like. Most top players are men in their 40s, while middle-aged women dominate the lower divisions.

That's changing a bit. Chris Ofstead, a player from Antioch, is himself a model of Scrabble normality. Ofstead's been playing competitively for two years and was introduced to the game in third grade through his school's Scrabble club. He's now 13 and in division six at the nationals, his first.

And he's kicking some butt too, though he's pretty offhand about it, saying he's not sure what it is about Scrabble that initially snagged him. "I won my first tournament I played at school. My friend brought me to one of the clubs, and I tried it out and I liked it." He studies a lot--"different lists and words," he says. "It helps my math and spelling, and a little bit of the vocabulary."

He didn't do so well at his first few tournaments but still had fun, so he just kept at it. "Most of it is determination . . . don't give up," he says when asked what it takes to make a good player. Ofstead comes out of the nationals with a rank of 34 out of the 88 division-six players, which is not bad at all, considering that most of the people he played against were more than twice his age.

"Scrabble has somewhat of an intellectual cachet--word freak, nerd--we're always trying to fight that," NSA executive director Williams says. "It's more approachable than chess. It also can be more fun, because there's a little bit of a luck element. You can beat a better player if everything goes your way, which you can't do in chess. We actually get some refugees from the chess world here. It tends to be more social . . . well, there's more women, first of all. It's more female than male. There's a lot of Scrabble romances and Scrabble weddings, Scrabble affairs.

"It's a very interesting community," Williams adds with fondness. "It's a subculture, and we have our love affairs, our feuds, our heroes, our bad boys, the whole deal. For many of these people, this is a significant part of their identity--playing Scrabble. It's their social life; it's their passion."

Waiting as my oil got changed, I sat reading Word Freak. The man next to me, an older guy in a leather aviator's jacket, peered over my shoulder and after a moment said, "I used to play Scrabble every day for five years while I was in prison in Iran."

"Whoa," I said. What do you say to that? I wanted to ask him what he was doing there and how they got hold of a Scrabble set to begin with and if it helped him keep his sanity and if he got really good at it or just played for something to do. But I didn't, because it was all too heavy. So I just smiled at him and looked sympathetic yet impressed.

He got up and walked outside to smoke a cigarette. "It's a great game," he said, before stepping out the door.

"It sure is." Everyone knows that-- some more than others.

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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