Meet the new champion of the far-flung Scrabble community.
Conrad Basset-Bouchard, a 24-year-old from Portland, Ore., won the 25th National Scrabble Championship on Wednesday in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. And when he won first place, he cried his eyes out.
“It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened in my entire life,” said Basset-Bouchard, who has been playing Scrabble for 10 years.
Forget the $10,000 check with his name on it. The championship means a lot more than that.
“In our community, if you win this, it’s like winning Wimbledon,” said John Robertsen, a tournament official. “In a way, it’s like being president of the United States. Even when you’re no longer president, people still call you Mr. President. That’s how this is – people recognize you as a national champion for the rest of your life.”
The five-day tournament, which opened Saturday, brought nearly 530 Scrabble enthusiasts to Buffalo.
During the final game Wednesday afternoon, photographers surrounded Basset-Bouchard. Players ran up to him and offered hugs and congratulations. One handed him a bottle of wine.
Nigel Richards, the four-time reigning champion heading into the tournament – and known as a quiet man who keeps to himself – walked up to Basset-Bouchard, patted him on the back and said, “Congratulations.”
Richards, a 47-year-old from New Zealand, didn’t place in the top five in this tournament.
During the tournament, Basset-Bouchard surpassed some of the greatest Scrabble players in the world.
Competitors from 11 countries played 31 games – one-on-one, with a clock – over 4ø days. There was no elimination. Their standings were based on wins and point spreads.
Basset-Bouchard is younger than Richards and other longtime players. He represents a new wave of young Scrabble players that the National Scrabble Championship has been seeing win more often in the last 10 years.
During the final game, Basset-Bouchard played Jason Li, 29, of Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, Quebec.
Other players were even younger, like 20-year-old Noah Walton and 16-year-old Jackson Smylie. Robertsen said the recent surge of youngsters competing in the championship tournament may be a result of new Scrabble programs in places like Texas and Massachusetts as well as Internet and online playing.
Scrabble isn’t just about years of experience. Players can read the dictionary, study statistics and practice playing Scrabble every day, but if players don’t draw good letters, they’re out of luck.
And that’s frustrating to competitors. Just ask 64-year-old Wendell Haynes, who considers himself one of the greatest players on the globe.
“I want to be a world champion one of these days,” said Haynes, of Loxahatchee, Fla. “I’ve been playing since 1963 and competitively since 1979. I’m ashamed to say I have not yet been a champion.”
Many competitors, young and old, wanted that title Wednesday.
The giant room was silent. During each game, all that could be heard were the tiles shaking each time a player shook the bag of letters.
Basset-Bouchard followed a sound formula to win: study, have good luck and maintain a calm, positive attitude.
“I’ve always just sort of coasted through stuff – I even coasted through Scrabble for a long time,” he said. “I would get really bitter and down when stuff didn’t go my way. I was more focused on luck than my own performance.”
With his new approach, come game time, he focused on the seven tiled letters in front of him. He also studied words for about an hour a day for six months before the championship and practiced playing against others in various tournaments around the world, including Thailand.
Basset-Bouchard has competed in the national tournament for 10 years to unite with his Scrabble buddies. He played one of his best friends, Walton, in the semifinals and cried tears of disappointment when he beat him.
“I really wanted my best friend to be in the finals,” he said.
The Scrabble championship felt as intense as a Wimbledon tournament, but the sense of camaraderie made it different. When they weren’t competing in the tournament, players gathered together and explored Buffalo and even played more Scrabble.
“This Scrabble world, these are all my best friends,” Basset-Bouchard said. “And that’s why I keep playing, because of the people.”