While the rest of the world was going gaga over the announcement last week that 5,000 new words had been added to “The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary,” most of the best Scrabble players were packing for their trips to Buffalo for the real big event: the 25th National Scrabble Championships at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
The five-day tournament, which started Saturday and concludes when the winners are announced Wednesday afternoon, is considered among the Scrabble-ati (not a usable word) to be the most prestigious annual tournament in the crossword-tile universe, attracting 525 players this year from 11 countries. Each entrant plays 31 games over four and a half days – there is no elimination – with their standings based on wins and point spreads.
Serious Scrabble players are a rare breed, paying to travel around the country and the world to match their skills with one another. The culture is competitive but not contentious.
“It’s a very collegial environment,” said tournament director Dallas Johnson, a midlevel player. “There are only so many people with an actual deep understanding of the game, so it attracts these like-minded individuals. It is as much a social gathering as it is a competition.”
“For most people, this is how they spend their summer vacation,” said John Chew of Toronto, co-president of the North American SCRABBLE Players Association, which organizes the tournament. “We spend seven hours a day playing Scrabble and 10 hours partying.”
“That’s another reason Buffalo was a popular choice for the tournament,” he added, with the first reason being its proximity to Southern Ontario, home to many of the players.
Others came much farther. Jean McArthur of Austin, Texas, has attended every tournament since 2001, and doesn’t mind admitting that getting the $10,000 top prize is not part of her game plan.
“I have no chance of winning enough money to cover more than a couple of drinks at the bar,” McArthur said, laughing. “It’s more a reason to travel and get to know people. It’s not so huge that it’s impersonal, but not so small that it’s boring. I know people from Israel, Europe, all over the world.”
One friend is her roommate at the Hyatt, Lisa Odom from St. Louis Park, Minn. Odom became the top-ranked woman player a week earlier and is one of only a handful of women in the top 50. She was modest about her chances to be in the money in Buffalo.
“Even though I’ve been ranked highly, I’ve had trouble with the long tournaments,” Odom said. “Winning 20 games (out of 31) would be good – that could put you in the top 20.”
Almost certain to be in the top 20 – if not at the very top – is Nigel Richards, a 47-year-old New Zealander who lives in Malaysia and who some say is the best Scrabble player ever. He has won the past four National Scrabble Championships, is the current world champion and is among a small group of players who hold genuine celebrity status.
Richards’ quiet demeanor and reluctance to talk about his Scrabble play, along with his flowing beard, only enhance the mystique.
“He doesn’t spend a lot of time socializing,” McArthur said. “If you bring up the idea of doing something else, he’ll say, ‘We’re here to play Scrabble.’ ”
But Richards does have at least one other interest. He’s an avid cyclist and brings his bike with him to tournaments.
“I rode to Niagara Falls yesterday,” Richards said during Saturday’s lunch break. “I went about 80 miles altogether.”
Also Saturday, the first day of play, Richards had a mixed performance, losing four games early on and being seated farther back than anyone was accustomed to seeing him.
“GI” Joel Sherman from the Bronx, so nicknamed because of notorious gastrointestinal issues and a multiple champion as well, had a better opening day, winning six of his first seven games in Division 1. Sherman gained wide fame as a “character” in Stefan Fatsis’ book “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players.” Many tournament players credit the 2001 book for re-energizing interest in the game.
His ‘beautiful’ game
Fatsis, a gregarious guy often heard as a commentator on NPR, remains popular in Scrabble circles. While researching his book, he took his game to the next level – and found that he likes it there. On the tournament floor Saturday, other players sought him out to say hello or trade thoughts on the matches.
Fatsis, a Division 2 player, calls the attention “incredibly sweet.”
“Nothing makes me happier than being able to contribute to making this more accessible and culturally acceptable,” he said. “What we do in memorizing these words and spelling them out is beautiful – it is extracting the arcana of English, and putting them to use.”
He was particularly excited about being able to play “a 5-vowel-8” in the opening morning, laying down “uintaite,” which is a natural mineral found in the Uinta Basin of Utah.
“It is wonderful to be able to liberate these words from the purgatory of dictionaries,” he said.
A passion for playing
Trips to Niagara Falls, music nights with performances by the players (Scrabble is big with musicians and mathematicians), and pick-up chess matches are all part of the extracurriculars for the competitors. However, there is one after-hours activity that trumps them all – and it isn’t the one that has resulted in quite a few marriages among the players.
“After people spend seven hours playing Scrabble,” said Chew, the co-president, “what a lot of them want to do is play more Scrabble.”
Jesse Matthews, a top player in the Collins international division from British Columbia, calls the event “our big dysfunctional family reunion,” noting that there were roughly equal numbers of men and women, and players of all ages and colors.
Chew also mentioned the game’s wide appeal.
“Look around the room and you see these people have nothing in common with each other except they are playing Scrabble. There are people who look like they’re homeless and some who look like they’re going to a formal,” he said.
And when it’s all over, it still isn’t over. On Cross-Tables.com, a website for Scrabble players, there is a notice for those wanting to return home by bus from Buffalo to Wilmington, Del. For those interested, that includes five rounds of Scrabble along the way.