When relatives Scrabble: One man’s quest to become a Master of the Tiles
May 1st, 2013 by Chris Humpherys
Competitive Scrabbling is serious business. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you check out one of their traveling tournaments.
We can argue until we’re blue in the face, and we have, about whether poker, chess and spelling bees are “sports.” They’re not… I don’t think. But they’re still competition at the highest level with fame, and quite often fortune, on the line. Scrabble tournaments are no different.
Sure, the conference halls that host these events are filled with spectacle-wearing savants who likely haven’t had a date in well, ever. After all, when’s the last time you saw a Scrabble champion with a supermodel for a wife? (I smell a Ben Stiller movie coming on.) That doesn’t change the fact, however, that these events are fiercely competitive.
Brother Bill (technically, he’s my step-uncle) recently tried his hand at one of these tourneys in his home town of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was kind enough to share his story. So please, people, try not to make too much fun of him. Despite being only slightly, socially unacceptable and a frighteningly, bad karaoke singer, he’d likely destroy any of us on the Scrabble board.
Dear family (and extended family Amy and Stephen),
A few weeks ago, I heard about an officially-sanctioned Scrabble tournament here in Philadelphia, so I joined the National Scrabble Association (a prerequisite), signed up for the tournament, and went. It was held in this beautiful building at the University of Pennsylvania, Houston Hall that was built in 1896. This was my first sanctioned Scrabble tournament. I did attend a non-sanctioned and very “casual-player-oriented” tournament a month or so ago. I did OK at that one, going 4-0, so perhaps that’s how I was spurred to give the “real” one a try.
I do OK against other casual players, but the people in the tournament today were a whole different breed. Many were retired and spend their time learning lists that make you a better player: all legitimate 2-letter words, the 3-letter words, the 11 “q without u” words, thousands of 7 and 8 letter words, and more. So, if you want to be competitive, you have to master these lists. I myself know the 2-letter words and the “q without u” words, but that’s the easy part.
Anyway, the tournament was highly organized: three divisions of competitors, about 15-16 people per division, and my division was the lowest ranked (typically, least experienced in tournament play) group. We played, within the division, in a round-robin format, whereby you rotated among the different Scrabble sets to play each opponent in turn. For each game, you use a chess clock, and each person has 25 minutes to make all of his or her moves. It was plenty of time: for each of my games, we finished with about 6 minutes, at least, to spare. People were very nice and welcoming, and they helped me out (e.g., about how to use, reset, and stop the time clock; about tile-drawing and word-challenging protocol, etc.) I didn’t make any major gaffes except for the few times I accidentally ended up with 8 tiles on my rack, which isn’t a big deal as long as you declare it immediately, which I did, and then it is easily rectified.
I’d say that about 2/3 of the people were my age or even older, if possible. We also had a sprinkling of younger people representing the U of PA Scrabble Club. While I did lose, it was uneven: at worst, I lost by about 120 points, a big whipping, but several games I lost only by nine or ten points. I was particularly proud to lose to the #1 seed in my division by only nine points, and I had him clearly nervous at one point. But he made an amazing move: I had played “niacin” earlier in the game, and then a few moves later ran a bingo (using all my tiles for a 50 point bonus) down to that word, hooking an s onto the end of the word I played (which I don’t remember) and to “niacin” itself. (Yes, “niacins” is a word.) My bingo ran down the next-to-”rightmost” column. And then the guy I was playing did the word “oblasti” next to my bingo, in the right-most column, getting one himself, getting the triple word score, and also making six (!) two-letter words in order to do so. That last part is really amazingly difficult, at least to me. Of course, I had to challenge “oblasti” or else I would have had absolutely no chance to win, but, sure enough, it was kosher (if a synonym for “Russian provincial divisions” can be kosher.) But, even so, I only lost by 9.
OK, I know this all sounds nerdy, and obviously I was in my element (e.g., in terms of nerdiness, not in terms of Scrabble skill level). But most of the people were surprisingly under the “normal” bell curve: not too many were Asperger’s or OCD, it seems to me, although I’d have to rely on my daughters to give me definitive diagnoses as to who were. But, to cite one example: the Scrabble boards they use rotate on a turntable, but I generally don’t rotate it when I play: it is just easier for me to read everything upside down. (Hey, maybe that’s why I lost…) But, when you do this, it is somewhat easier to put an “I” or “O” or “H” upside down, with the point value toward the top side of the board rather than the bottom. When I did this with a few players, they gently corrected me, but, with one guy, when it happened, he got a little agitated, and said that according to the rules, if you do it more than twice in a game, you get penalized (time or points, I wasn’t sure.) So I made a point of being more careful with it: I didn’t want to spur an incident.
Since I generally finished my games fast, I had time to walk around and look at other games in progress, which apparently is OK as long as you try to stay inconspicuous and not on top of the players. And, trust me, not only were the players I opposed in a different type of league, but the moves and words by the players in the top division were unbelievable: just a whole different type of game. It was really interesting to see it first-hand.
The good news is that I had a fun day. The bad news is that I went 0-7, and I was the worst one in the room. So I guess a fun day filled with losing is OK, but not quite as fulfilling as a fun day filled with winning. I’m not sure I’ll do a tournament again, though: I had suspected, and now I know for certain, that there’s no way I could do appreciably better unless I spend very large amounts of time memorizing word lists and studying Scrabble strategy books. (I own two). And not only is my memory not up to stuffing such things into my brain these days, but it would cut big-time into the time I spent with family, on more general reading, etc. Not to mention work. But we’ll see!