Q) When did you start playing Scrabble?
Like most people, I played Scrabble casually growing
up. But I didnt take the game seriously until my late twenties,
when a girlfriend and I toted our travel set on vacations. She
gave me a copy of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary
with the following inscription: "For consultation only. NO
memorizing! I abided by her request, but I won too
often. When our relationship ended, the book and the Scrabble
board were mine. A few years later, some friends had started playing
the game regularly and I joined in. At the same time, I was searching
for a quirky subculture to write about, and I called the director
of the National Scrabble Association and proposed a match. I won
big, drawing all the good tiles from the bag. I quickly discovered
the regular Scrabble game in New Yorks Washington Square
Park and soon after found myself studying word lists, playing
alone on the living room floor of my Brooklyn apartment, and attending
the weekly meetings of the Manhattan Scrabble Club. I was hooked.
Q) How does competitive Scrabble differ from the game played
There are several key differences. Almost every competitive
player immediately learns all of the ninety-six two-letter words
acceptable in the game (AA, AB, AD, AE, AG . . . ) and the thousand
or so three-letter words. Those are the building blocks of Scrabble.
Unlike at home, the competitive version of the game is almost
always a one-on-one pursuit. It is played with a time limit, usually
twenty-five minutes per player per game. Players use plastic tiles
rather than wooden ones. They keep track of the letters as they
are placed on the board. And "challenges are
adjudicated using a book that consists of a list of more than
110,000 words, sans definitions. Top players routinely score in
excess of 400 points per game, nearly twice as much as the typical
living room player, and make an average of two bingos per game.
Finally, money changes hands. Tournament prizes range from a hundred
bucks or so at one-day events to $25,000 at the National Scrabble
Championship. For fun, players often stake a few bucks per game
and a few cents for the difference in the final score.
Q) Is there a pattern of behaviors or abilities shared by
many top-level Scrabble players? Is there a Scrabble "type?
Scrabbles little secret is that its not
really about words but about math. At the highest levels, the
game is about determining probabilities, calculating odds, and
discovering combinations and then using that information
to make strategic decisions. Its no coincidence that many
of the top players are computer programmers, engineers, accountants,
or former math majors. Good players also have "board vision
a spatial skill that allows them to process the complex
geometry of the board quickly and evaluate potential plays. They
also share discipline, a willingness to devote years of
their lives to learning tens of thousands of words. Competitive
Scrabble is about evenly divided along gender lines, but the top
experts are almost exclusively men, who seem more willing to commit
their lives to the game (or perhaps less able not to do so). The
universe of players is diverse from little old ladies who
play for fun to those whose existence depends on it. Its
a gorgeous mosaic; the characters in Word Freak
a pill-popping standup comic to a Zen master to a black power
advocate to an options trader to an aging communist to a Harvard
Q) Tell us about the history of Scrabble.
In the early 1930s, an unemployed architect named Alfred
Butts decided to invent a word game as a way to make some money
and provide people with a diversion during the Depression. To
arrive at the proper letter distribution, Butts meticulously counted
words and letters on the pages of various newspapers and magazines.
His first game, called Lexico, was a word-formation game that
didnt involve a board. When sales of that proved dismal,
Butts over time created the now-familiar board and tested the
new game on his wife, Nina, and his friends. But Butts was a poor
businessman and couldnt persuade any toy or games company
to make or sell it. Finally, a social worker named James Brunot,
who had played the game, proposed taking over production in 1948.
Sales were slow at first, but exploded almost overnight in 1952.
Scrabble became a sensation, the biggest-selling startup in toy-industry
history. Brunots little company couldnt handle the
flood of orders, and he handed over production and marketing to
Selchow & Righter. Today, the rights to Scrabble are owned
by Hasbro in North America and Mattel in the rest of the world.
More than 100 million Scrabble sets have been sold worldwide,
and the game is played in two dozen languages.
Q) What were your goals in becoming a competitive player?
From the outset, I wanted to understand how the best
players unscrambled words so well, how they recalled thousands
of words from the recesses of memory, and how they performed under
pressure. But I didnt think I could become like them. I
thought they were programmed far too differently from me for that
to happen. Once I started playing in tournaments, though, I realized
that while some of the differences between me a Scrabble
everyman, with no strong predisposition toward success in this
game of strategy and chance and them were insurmountable,
many werent. Becoming an expert Scrabble player required
time and dedication a willingness to dive into the language,
to learn thousands of words, and to study strategy. At my peak,
I was studying and playing Scrabble twenty or thirty hours a week
and entering tournaments twice a month. Scrabble took over my
life, and I loved it.
Q) So how good are you?
Im an expert. Scrabble uses a rating system patterned
after one used in competitive chess. Ratings range from a low
of about 500 to over 2000. There are no specific designations
like "master or "grand master
as there are in chess, but generally speaking, ratings below 1200
are considered novice, between 1200 and 1600 intermediate, and
above 1600 expert. Scrabble tournaments typically are broken into
divisions on or close to those cutoffs. After my first tournament,
I got a rating of 761; these days I'm about 1700, roughly 200th
out of 2,300 tournament players in North America.
Q) How did you improve so much?
I studied a lot, played a lot, and had a teacher. Joe
Edley, the Zen master, was my sensei. During the course of the
book, I visit Joe for periodic training sessions that help me
understand both the fundamentals, like which words to learn and
how to learn them, to the "inner game of Scrabble,
the mental discipline that would help me become a better player.
Like most players, I soaked up the two- and three-letter words
quickly. And then I moved on to learning bingos, that is, the
seven- and eight-letter words that score the most points in the
game. I studied those in order of the probability that they might
appear on my rack. Over time, I learned thousands of bingos, plus
4,000 four-letter words and thousands of five-letter words, too.
And thats nothing compared to what the very best manage
to digest, retain, and recall when they most need to.
Q) Didnt you get tired of learning words that wouldnt
have any use in "real life?
For me and others like me, Scrabble is real life. But
it does mean accepting what for many people is difficult to accept:
that for the limited purpose of playing this game, the meanings
of words are meaningless. Some top players love etymologies and
definitions. Some dont care about them at all, describing
words as "letter strings whose utility is simply
to score points in this game. I didnt initially have an
innate ability to digest thousands of words and their meanings,
too, so the only way to get better was just to learn and memorize.
With that comes curiosity, of course; you wind up looking up the
definition of numerous words. And an appreciation for the aesthetic
beauty and flexibility of language that PFFT and CWRTH
can be words, or that INCITES can be extended into ZINCITES, or
that words can have related and sometimes humorous anagrams, like
SENATOR, ATONERS, and TREASON.
Q) So how has Scrabble changed your life? Have you learned
anything from your immersion in the game besides all those
Im certainly not the same person I was when I
began this quest for Scrabble greatness. Some of the changes are
behavioral, a kind of occupational hazard that comes with the
game; for instance, I try to anagram most everything in sight,
from names to road signs to restaurant menus. But its more
than the words themselves. Its how I think. Scrabble, the
purpose of which is to convert chaos into order, has helped me
assimilate mounds of information more easily and think more logically.
Its made me realize that almost no discipline is out of
reach if youre willing to work hard enough at it. Its
filled me with boundless affection, respect, and downright awe
for a group of people I couldnt have fathomed a few years
ago. Ive been a journalist going on twenty years now, yet
I never realized just how powerful words can be, or just how much
they mean to me. Its like Jim Bouton said: "You spend
a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it
turns out that it was the other way around all the time.
A Scrabble glossary