My brief foray into Scrabble tournament play

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scrabbleI grew up on a steady diet of classic American games. I loved Life, Monopoly, Pictionary, and Scrabble. Especially Scrabble. I have a love affair with words, and Scrabble drew out my love of the English language. I love taking letter tiles and finding the best ways to combine them into words, artfully placing them on the board, calculating my best move. Most people refused to play with me, though, disliking that I always won. When I moved to the big city of Cleveland in 2009, I was happy to discover a Scrabble meetup group. It was exhilarating to find that I was one of the worst Scrabble players in the group. I had so much to learn! I relished the challenge. I was introduced to a higher level of Scrabble competition. I would play 2 or 3 games of Scrabble back-to-back at the club. Then I began playing Scrabble online as well, 2 or 3 games a night. Originally I thought Scrabble success hinged on having a large vocabulary, being creative, and having excellent spatial intelligence. But I came to learn that competitive Scrabble play requires a whole lot of memorization.

In order to be a competitive Scrabble player, you need to first memorize all the legal 2-letter words. Next you need to memorize all the 3-letter words. Next are word roots. This is just the start. The top Scrabble competitors have amazing memories. I recommend you print off a Scrabble cheat sheet to aid you in play, then memorize as much of it as possible.

I don’t have the greatest long-term memory, but I was already hooked. The next step, of course, was attending genuine Scrabble tournaments.  Scrabble tournament players are a curious group. I first learned about the culture of Scrabble tournament play reading the novel “Word Freak.” “Word Freak” is an account of a Wall Street Journal reporter who wants to write about Scrabble tournament play, so he begins to attend tournaments. In order to learn about the discipline, he starts preparing for tournaments himself – memorizing word lists, doing research on strategies, and even working with a coach. He becomes completely hooked; he comments at one point that Scrabble had become the most important part of his life. I found the narrative of the story compelling though I didn’t want to go that far.

Next I joined the North American Scrabble Players’ Association (NASPA) so that I could begin Scrabble tournaments. The cost of membership was a bit steep – $50. But I was so excited to experience the new world of tournament play.

My first tournament didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I truly felt “out of my league.” I was beaten badly by all of my opponents. They played with this quiet intensity. I could see their brains working, considering each possible word play. Tournament matches are on a strict time schedule – each player has exactly 25 minutes to play. As each player finishes his turn, he hits the clock on his side of the board. If you had considered Scrabble a casual game, consider these rules.

I was a bit discouraged after that first tournament, but I wasn’t going to give up on Scrabble tournaments after one attempt. The people were vaguely nice, although they were consumed by calculations of letters and numbers, remembering the memorized lists and strategies.

I went to my second tournament a few months later. I had meant to study up for it. I had been trying to memorize word lists for a while but seemed to lack the motivation. I finally went mostly out of the motivation to make use of the fact that I had paid $50 for dues but only gone once that year.

There were only about 6 people at this tournament. I recognized a few from the previous tournament. Again, they knew much more than me. I was fumbling, guessing that “cami” was a legal word, just to have my opponent laugh and challenge it, taking me to the computer so that I could be instructed it was illegal. The players kept score while they played. I was just trying to figure out the best plays, worried about the clock ticking. I couldn’t keep up with the score. They all checked off which letters had been played so that they could know what was left.

One of the 3 games I played was against an elderly gentleman wearing a bright Scrabble tie. He was very animated as he played. He brought his personalized sheet to check off letters and calculate score. He placed tiles with a flourish, slamming his time clock in excitement.  I was happy to see that I wasn’t losing as much as in other games. I didn’t think I was winning, but I was struggling to keep up with our scores so I wasn’t sure.  Still, it seemed like we were close. At the end, I was getting some solid words, and he was having bad luck with letters.  Finally the game was ending. He played some intricate word I had never heard of – nearly all vowels.  I think it was “uvuleae”? Must be some scientific term, I thought. These players kept playing words I had never encountered before. My opponent kept drawing tiles from the bag, searching for something. On the last turn, I played a word with my Q.  He knocked over his tile rack and beamed at me. Looking at me with his bright eyes, he said, “Congratulations.  You have just beaten the highest-rated Scrabble player in Ohio.” Then he continued, “I can’t believe you didn’t challenge that word I played at the end! It was just gibberish. I was trying to dump my vowels so I could try to get the Q in the bag. I had a ⅙ chance of getting the Q.  But I didn’t realize you already had it.” I just smiled weakly. I was amazed. The top Scrabble player in Ohio! It seems like I may have mostly won because I had good luck drawing tiles and he had bad luck, but it wasn’t all luck. (I learned later that although Dan is the highest-rated player in Ohio, he isn’t considered to be the best. With Scrabble ratings – everyone starts at a baseline score. As they win tournaments, their rating gradually improves. A few of the younger players are more skilled and knowledgeable than Dan, they just haven’t played for as many years. )

Still, the win felt great and I mostly enjoyed the tournament. One of the players, whom the others said was probably the best player in Ohio, had a defined scar on the top of his head from his recent brain surgery. He had to use a fluorescent Scrabble board since he had difficulty seeing the tiles on a normal board due to some vision problems related to the surgery. Another contestant talked about how he had been traveling a lot recently, hitting up Scrabble tournaments in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

It was all a good experience, but training for the tournament, then playing games with serious Scrabble players, seemed to have taken some of the fun out of the game. I had already beaten the top-rated player in Ohio, I reasoned. No shame in retiring now.

Although my life as a tournament player was short, I still have the memories. I still can tell people casually, “Sure, I’m a good Scrabble player, I’ve played in a few tournaments.” It gives my love for Scrabble an air of accomplishment. The only problem is that now I rarely play Scrabble. In training for tournament play, I lost the innocent joy of my former way of playing. Now Scrabble for me is no longer about exploring language. Scrabble is about reciting word lists and planning optimal plays. Sadly, I may have beaten the highest-rated player in Ohio, but on the way I fell out of love with one of my favorite games.

There’s still Words with Friends, but Words with Friends feels like a shallow substitute for the rich game of Scrabble.  I’m hoping that someday I will fall back in love with Scrabble again.

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