Good-bye Grannies, hello computer programmers
September 26, 2005
It was an irrelevantly beautiful day outside the Reno Hilton Hotel, as under the glare of that hotel’s ballroom lights I drew my first seven tiles of game 10. I considered my letters for a few seconds, calmly threw the word BLITZES down on the board, announced “106 points” to opponent and construction worker Ralph King, smacked the clock, and drew seven more letters. After Ralph’s feeble, 10-point response, I laid down WORDIEST for 63, trying not to smirk as I repeated the same end-of-turn routine.And when after five turns I looked down to see that I already had 308 points – well on my way to a 513-325 trouncing of poor Ralph – I finally had an answer to the question you’ve probably been asking yourself since the first nine words of this article.What the hell was I doing in Reno? In August?
I was competing in the 2005 National Scrabble Championships. Each year, this tournament brings together 700 of the most obsessed Scrabble players from North America and beyond for four days of staring intensely at tables, talking about anagrams, recounting interesting bingos (a “bingo” occurs when you’ve used all seven letters on your rack in one turn), and slogging through Old MacDonald-style (i.e., EIEIO) racks. And if you’re lucky, you get the occasional indication that everything you’d sunk into this – the squandering of valuable vacation days, the forsaking of the girlfriend for one last spin through your high-probability-eight-letter-words study list – has not gone to waste.Oh, yes, as well as all the camaraderie that comes with sharing your passion with hundreds of similarly passionate, interesting, kind, altogether lovely people.But never mind all that.
By the tournament’s halfway point, I had expectations far beyond mere camaraderie. After dissecting opponents such as 48-year-old librarian Peter Dolgenos (474-358, with SONATINE and DOLLING as bingos), 55-year-old information-technology specialist Lynn Dunn (546-310, bingo-ing with LINDANES, OMITTED, and ENTIRELY), and 14-year-old whiz kid Andre Ornish (who in accordance with the mores of his age group, said to me at the game’s start “Good luck … well, not really, but I know you’re supposed to say that.”), my record stood at 11-3, which at that point put me in third place in my intermediate-level division, and set me up for a crack at a $1,500 first-place prize. “Wow, dude,” Andre said despondently, after I beat him 425-281 (bingo-ing with TERRAIN and AWARDING). “You’re on a roll.”It was nice to know, as I approach my mid-30s, that I can still do something that impresses a teenage kid. Granted my $1,500 prize would be a paltry fraction of the $25,000 awarded to the winner of the top division, whose final games would be broadcast on ESPN. But leaving town with Scrabble bragging rights would certainly make my trip to Reno worthwhile.God knows very little else would have. Approaching Reno from the east, you fly over an hour’s worth of bleak nothing before finally happening upon a sprawling patch of subdivisions, golf courses and, finally, hotels rising like neon weeds from the sunbaked earth. Born as a mining boomtown and now fueled by gambling, proximity to Lake Tahoe and San Francisco, and its being relatively untainted compared to stagnant Eastern cities, Reno continues to grow rapidly.But I couldn’t help noticing that airfare and hotel in Reno in August were quite cheap. And as I stepped out in the 95-degree air, it became clear why the National Scrabble Association chose this city and its isolated Reno Hilton complex (Paris Hilton has surely never been to the Reno Hilton) as a site for its 2005 championships: They got themselves a screaming deal.
Though the Scrabble board game was invented nearly 75 years ago, it has only had a national championship for the last 25, and only within the last five years has it attracted media attention. This is largely due to a book called “Word Freak,” a near-best seller by Wall Street Journal reporter and National Public Radio correspondent Stefan Fatsis that chronicled his own two-year journey from living-room player to expert tournament contestant. An award-winning documentary “Word Wars,” which covers much of the same ground while revealing flesh-and-blood profiles of top Scrabble players, also contributed to the buzz about Scrabble. Scrabble players whose prowess is now known to millions (well, maybe a million) include Joel Sherman, whose gastrointestinal problems are such that he’s widely known as “G.I. Joel,” and Marlon Hill, a dreadlocked, pan-African Baltimore player who in conversation intermingles firebombs against “white society” with high-level board analysis, all in a language that night be likened to Ebonics as interpreted by Charles Mingus.Due to this newfound demand for Scrabble, organizers this year turned what had been an every-other-year tournament into an annual one. And despite fears that the increased frequency would limit the turnout, the tournament drew nearly double the expected number of registrants.
I have been playing competitive Scrabble for six years, and I now rank roughly 750th among National Scrabble Association-rated players. And though I have always fancied myself someone with a great love for words, for tournament Scrabble players this love becomes subservient to other things: the memorization of lists of words I cannot define and don’t care to, the bone-dry calculation of probabilities, and even the bluffing skills of a poker player as I try to slap down plausible but phony words such as GRIDLIKE, LUCITES, and CHURNAGE with a straight face. As cold as this may sound to casual players who strive to play the most interesting word possible, there is beauty that comes with this strategic focus. To successfully predict the letters that come your way, to play a word like XU (a monetary unit of Vietnam) for 52 points – neutralizing your opponent’s stylish but low-scoring plays – sometimes feels like being able to control the weather.And while there frequently is stigma attached to people who are “too good” at marginal enterprises (bowling, Ping-Pong, mumbling mean things under one’s breath), Scrabble tournaments are free of such social snobbery. It’s not because serious Scrabble players smell or dress badly – or at least not entirely so. It’s because the social niceties and false modesties of living-room Scrabble are irrelevant to the primary goal: winning the game.Which I had been doing, to a point.Midway through the tournament I was sitting pretty in third place. But the tournament-pairing system matched best-against-best and worst-against-worst, thus inflicting parity pressure on the field, and ensuring that I would spend the tournament’s last two days playing only the strongest players in my division. Goodbye grannies, hello computer programmers – and almost exclusively male ones. (Chauvinistic as this may sound, male dominance is for now a fact of Scrabble. Despite the tournament’s relatively even overall gender distribution, the top 26 finishers in Division 1 were male, as were 21 of the top 25 finishers in my division.)
Three times during the last two days, I lost to a computer programmer named Jeff Myers. I also lost to a computer programmer named Darren Johnson, a software engineer named Ben Harrison, a video-game scriptwriter named Edward DeGuzman, and Paul Baginski – who wasn’t a computer programmer, but whose hobby as listed on the Scrabble Association website was “integral domains with non-unique factorization.”It did not take a geek to see that I was quickly losing altitude as the losses rained upon me. I finished the tournament by losing eight consecutive games, leaving me in 58th place with a 14-14 record, middling in the grand scheme of things, but utterly devastating after my promising start. In my last game, my also-despondent foe introduced himself saying, “I just know I’m going to lose this game,” and proceeded to hand me the most severe drubbing of my 20-some tournament career, proving that every now and then, just maybe, a severe lack of confidence is all you really need.For days afterward, I moped. But my girlfriend surprised me a few days later with a gift and a card, signed “You’re my favorite tournament Scrabble player EVER!” which went some way toward consoling me. In the wake of the tournament, I think I have learned a lot about the world. For example, I no longer forsake my girlfriend for lists of high-probability eight-letter words. When not losing Scrabble games hand over fist, Jeremy Simon manages publications and research at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and he directs an Oct. 21-23 Scrabble tournament in Denver; call (970) 309-4494 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.