Friday, March 1, 2002
Scrabble: Sport of the Mind
On Presidents' Day weekend, 150 word lovers gather in a hotel ballroom in Danbury, Connecticut, to play Scrabble in an atmosphere as competitive as the Winter Olympics. During competition, the room is quiet, the silence broken only by the clickity-clack of tiles being drawn from the bag, a shout of "Challenge!" to summon a word judge, and announcements of each score. After each round, people gather in little groups to whine, boast or commiserate about their game and their luck or lack of it in drawing tiles ("I haven't seen a blank in six rounds"). I join one of the post-mortem groups, sharing the love of words, the thrill of competition and the camaraderie of an exotic and eccentric community.
The Danbury event, organized and run by players, is one of over 150 U.S. tournaments sanctioned by the National Scrabble Association each year. About 10,000 people play competitive Scrabble in clubs, tournaments and online, and they take the game very, very seriously. They study word lists, understand board strategy, perform post-game analyses, and tote special equipment like custom-made boards, colorful plastic tiles and digital clocks.
Jere Mead, chair of the Foreign Language department at Concord-Carlisle High School, and I are both tournament players and longtime members of the Lexington Scrabble Club -- but there the resemblance ends. He is a world-class player, ranked fifth in the U.S. and 38th in the world. I am an intermediate player with a fluctuating rating that is currently going south; I'm ranked 540th in the U.S.
Mead did not play in Danbury, but in December 2001, he was on the fifteen-member U.S. team at the World Scrabble Competition ("the Worlds") in Las Vegas, where 88 players from more than 40 countries competed for the title of World Scrabble Champion. Mead finished 31st, an impressive performance against the world's best players. "I fared better than I had feared," Mead admits, "but worse than I had hoped13 [wins] and 11 [losses]. Before the tournament, I thought I was good enough to be competitive in any given game, but not good enough to contend for prize money, and that turned out to be the case." The top prize of $25,000 and the title of World Scrabble Champion went to Brian Cappelletto, a 32-year-old options trader from Chicago, with a record of 18 and 6. In second place, winning 17 games and $10,000 was the previous champion, Joel Wapnick, a 55-year-old music professor from Montreal.
Although he was out of the money, Mead says he still had a marvelous experience: "The level of play was high, but what made the tournament memorable was the pervasive air of good feeling, admiration for each other's game, respect, and encouragement." Back at home, some of Mead's colleagues and students at CCHS followed his progress online. Ever the dedicated teacher, Mead notes, "I only missed three sessions with each class. My students, bless them, did what I asked them to do while I was gone."
The connective tissue that links all Scrabble players, regardless of their level, is a passion for words. Non-players assume that experts possess a huge vocabulary, retrievable at will, liberally sprinkled about at social gatherings and confidently plunked down on a Scrabble board. In truth, even highly rated players consider definitions unimportant. Words are game pieces, useful only as tools to boost the score. As for using words learned in Scrabble in polite conversation, try these on your friends and see how quickly they leave the room: GAIJIN (a foreigner in Japan), DACKER (to waver), PSAMMON (a group of microorganisms living in waterlogged sands), or FODGEL (plump). Then there are words with more than one meaning. Everyone knows mumps as a childhood disease, but it is also a verb: to MUMP is to beg, and a MUMPER is one who begs. Knowing parts of speech enables a good Scrabbler to play MUMPING and perhaps even draw a challenge.
All Scrabble players have favorite words. I am especially fond of two words because of their definitionsTOADLESS (having no toads) and UROPYGIA (the humps from which birds' tail feathers grow)but I have never played them.
All those words
More than 100,000 two-to-eight-letter words are acceptable in North American Scrabble and are found in The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, Third Edition (Merriam Webster). Competitive players use a 300-page book of acceptable words, minus definitions, called the Official Word List (Merriam Webster) and available only to members of the National Scrabble Association. International competitions use the British dictionary, Chambers' Official Scrabble Words International, which includes thousands of words unfamiliar to North American players. Players in world competition must study the Britishisms, such as QI, an alternate spelling of "chi" or "life force" and ZO, "a male hybrid resulting from combining domestic cattle and yaks." These and 23 other obscure two-letter words are strategically important in international play, although their usefulness in dinner-table conversation is questionable.
Mead knows the importance of studying thousands of words in preparation for the pinnacle of Scrabbledom; he was on the U.S. team in the 1997 competition. "I used a computer program to drill the words used in international competition," he explains, "and I played a lot of online games with other entrants from the U.S. and overseas." He studied "threes-to-make fours" (for example, the three-letter word RIA, meaning "a long, narrow inlet" can become RIAL, "a monetary unit of Iran"), four-letter words, all words using the power tiles JQXZ, and "high-probability sevens and eights."
High-probability words consist of letters that not only appear frequently on one's rack but are also likely to produce a seven-letter bonus word worth an extra 50 points. These treasures are called "bingos" in Scrabble-speak. To achieve them, players learn "stems," six letters that will form a bingo when another letter is added. The most common stem is SATIRE, which forms 67 seven-letter words (for example, SATIRE + T = ARTISTE and six other anagrams.
Once school started in September, Mead's time for intensive study and practice dwindled, as did "the very important mental and physical aspects of preparationrelaxation and exercise. For me to reach my competitive potential, I would have to take time off from work. Maybe when I retire . . . ."
Asked whether his knowledge of Latin contributes to his success at Scrabble, Mead replies, "Hardly at all. Sure, I have a better sense than most of what is likely to be a word, but at the top level of the game you don't run into many spurious Latin plurals, or the like. Scrabble rewards memory, risk-reward thinking, and a sense of probabilities much, much more than it rewards word knowledge." Among top analysts of the game, it is widely accepted that Scrabble is a math game, not a language game.
Tournament-level Scrabblers, while actively memorizing words, also understand the importance of key strategies that often spell the difference between victory and defeat. One basic strategy is rack management. Desirable racks, leading to bingos, do not contain doubles of letters, they strike a balance between vowels and consonants, and have common letter sequences such as ER, -ING, and EST. Players are quick to exchange tiles in an attempt to improve their racks.
Defensive strategies are as crucial to winning as making high-scoring plays. Strong players can block opponents' potentially huge plays, especially at the end of a game. Strategically placing the X of XI on a triple-letter square, can garner a heart-quickening 52 points.
End-game moves are endlessly debated and computer-analyzed online in a Scrabble players discussion group. Throughout the game, players are allowed to track the played letters on a score sheet. Knowing which of the 100 tiles remain in the tile bag especially toward the end of the game is enormously useful in planning one's last few moves. When the tile bag is empty, trackers know exactly which letters their opponent holds and can usually block a major play, even if it means sacrificing points to do so.
In Danbury, my final game is against a vivacious Jamaican woman, a long-time player rated much higher than I. Toward the end of the game, our scores are neck-and-neck, and five letters remain in the bag. She plays a word with only four letters, deliberately leaving one letter for me to draw. I slap down a bingo, DOUBLES (BLOUSED is also acceptable), for 72 points, reach in the bag and pull out the dreaded Q. It will not play and will add 20 points to my opponent's score. She makes several plays with her remaining letters, building up her score, while I can only pass my turn. She wins by 14 points. I still love this game!
My record at Danbury is 11 wins and 9 losses, placing me 13th in my division of 44. Much room for improvement and on the drive home I mentally review the plays I missed.
One of the players in Danbury is Stefan Fatsis, a studious-looking young sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a commentator for National Public Radio. He wrote a best-seller last year, Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. In recounting his astounding rise to the expert level after obsessive word study and intensive mentoring by some of Scrabble's elite and eccentric players, Fatsis has written a revealing, entertaining and exceptionally readable book. He is a celebrity in the Scrabble world and Word Freak is credited with drawing new, young players into the club and tournament scene.
Even younger players, those in grades 5 through 8, are caught up in the excitement of competitive play through School Scrabble. According to the National Scrabble Association, more than 18,000 schools and a half-million students nationwide participate in tournament play and the numbers are rising each year. Educators credit Scrabble with improving vocabulary, spelling, and spatial relationship skills and promoting cooperative learning, all accomplished while students are having fun. Seven regional School Scrabble competitions are planned in 2002, including a large New England tournament scheduled for April 27 at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. As a volunteer at last year's New England regional school tournament at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, I was impressed by the enthusiasm, sportsmanship, and high level of play of hundreds of children and the dedication of their coaches, teachers, and parents to this "sport of the mind."
Next month also marks the return of the annual Boston-area tournament, April 12-14, which usually draws top players from around the country. Jere Mead is still undecided about competing here. He has his sights set higher and farther: "Rumor has it that in 2003, the Worlds will be in Kuala Lumpur and I may need a tad more time away [from my classes.]" This will not be an easy decision, however. Two years ago, Mead again qualified for the Worlds in Melbourne, Australia, but competing would have meant major time away from his students. He chose to stay and teach.
For general information on Scrabble clubs, tournaments and School Scrabble, contact the National Scrabble Association at www.scrabble-assoc.com. 1-631-477-0033.
The Lexington Scrabble Club meets every Thursday at 7:00 p.m. at the First Parish Church, Harrington Street (on Lexington Green). For information, visit www.ziplink.net/~wolfberg/scrabble/lexington or call Ellen Miller at 1-978-287-4776.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito