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Meet the Scrabble-rousers

Scrabble is ...
Posted 10:58am on Wednesday, Aug. 04, 2010

The clock is steadily ticking down. I'm nervously shifting the tiles around in front of me, trying to make a word that will score me a "bingo" -- Scrabble lingo for the 50-point bonus that comes with using all of your letters. I have R-R-E-A-C-E-T, and I know there's a seven- or eight-letter word to be made from them. RETRACE? Or with an E on the board, I could make RECREATE. But I can't find a place to play a word, or an 'E' I could build upon. That elusive bingo is slipping away, like that blissful dream of winning the lottery that turns into just another ordinary day.

Playing well together

They arrive on a warm Tuesday night in July, at an otherwise anonymous Taco Bueno, just off Highway 183 in Bedford. They have little interest in burritos, unless the letters B, U, R, R, I, T and O happen to be on their tile rack.

There are a dozen or so of them, more women than men. Most of them are in their 50s and 60s, but a few are younger. Like all good soldiers ready for battle, they come fully equipped: A deluxe board (the kind that spins); a digital game clock, set for 25 minutes on each side. The other patrons at this Taco Bueno occasionally cast curious glances in their direction -- what's going on over there ? -- but "The Mid-Cities Scrabble Players" don't seem to notice. They are used to outsiders not understanding what makes them tick.

They settle into the salmon-colored plastic booths, carefully laying out supplies in front of them. Led by Mary Rhoades, a 71-year-old retiree who has been playing since the early 1980s, the group meets here each week and pairs off in a series of tensely fought, quietly unnerving games that put to shame those leisurely afternoon Scrabble matches you might remember from your adolescence. Although the members have spent years playing together, their conversations rarely dwell on the personal. Instead, they talk about words, the ecstasies and agonies of words. The ones that scored them hundreds of points. The ones they had perfectly laid out in front of them, but couldn't find a place to play on the board.

These folks take Scrabble so seriously, in fact, that they uniformly report having alienated friends and family at some point: The reason they joined the Mid-Cities Players, many say, is that no one else would play with them.

"It's the difference between playing tennis with a professional and playing with your friend," explains Chris Schneider, 40, a producer with Fox Sports Southwest in Las Colinas.

"I can't turn it off," adds Kate Watson, a 55-year-old school instructor, of her tendency to attempt to correct the performance of less-experienced opponents. "My nephews refuse to play with me anymore."

If the games are feeling especially heated tonight, it's because many of the attendees are in training. The 2010 National Scrabble Championship -- featuring more than 400 competitors from 46 states and five countries -- begins Saturday and continues through Wednesday at the Hotel InterContinental Dallas in Addison. It's the first time this much-contended tournament has taken place in the Metroplex. (The 2011 edition is also scheduled to be played here.) Players will range in age from 13-year-old Bradley Robbins of New Hampshire to 92-year-old Justine Zollinger of Tennessee.

Immediately following, from Wednesday to Aug. 16, the 2010 Scrabble World Players Championship will take place. It is a relatively new, biennial event designed to draw more international Scrabble players to North America. Players from Ghana, Ireland, Malaysia, Thailand and Nigeria are expected to attend.

What all of these people have in common, according to Rhoades, who will also serve as director of this year's championship:

A quixotic fascination with words; and a love for an unabashedly nerdy game that drives many perfectly literate and erudite people plainly batty.

"One of the most annoying things for people who don't like Scrabble is that we don't always know the meaning of the words we play," says Rhoades. (According to official rules, a player isn't required to define the word -- it just needs to be in the dictionary.) "Someone might say, 'What does that mean?'

"I say, '45 points.'"

A history of words

The first Scrabble board game was produced in 1948, though it was another 25 years before tournament play first started to catch on. The first National Scrabble Championship was held in New York in 1973. Since then, there have been especially popular years (between 2004 and 2006, the tournament was televised on ESPN) and more recently lean ones (longtime sponsor Hasbro scaled back its financial support in 2008).

However, it continues to attract a dogged group of devotees, who this year will compete for a $10,000 first prize in the elite "Division 1." (The tournament's appearance this year in Dallas has little to do with the fact that organizer Chris Cree, captain of the "Dallas Destroyers," lives here. He says the city, out of about 50 candidates, just put in the most attractive bid.)

If you've seen the popular 2003 documentary Word Wars, which followed the goings-on at the 2002 National Scrabble Championship, you have a good sense of what will unfold here. Players are paired off, in a series of timed matches, through 30-plus rounds of play over the course of five days. Perhaps not surprisingly, all this high-pressure intensity can sometimes result in outbursts. Players have been known to throw boards or unleash a stream of profanity after losing. If a player issues a challenge, he's apt to be met with a deadly glare from his opponent -- especially if that challenge is sustained. (Laptops, programmed to determine the validity of the words, are placed throughout the tournament site.)

The thing about these hard-core players, though, is that they all seem to display a sense of humor about their own quirkiness; it's as if, having finally found comfort among their fellow outcasts, they can laugh about the very traits that others once mocked them for.

Both Rhoades and Cree, 55, a Dallas-based wholesale forklift business owner, say there are a considerable number of mathematicians and musicians among the ranks of the National American Scrabble Players Association. There is also a small, but notable contingent of people who have Asperger's syndrome.

Then there is the obsessiveness that you hear about again and again, the hours spent each day playing and studying the game. In 2000, for example, Cree took the official Scrabble dictionary and placed every single word in it on an index card. "It took me two years," he says. "I go through those all the time."

Scrabble players' greatest source of satisfaction include: extraordinary plays, their own and others'; dazzling uses of all seven titles; and words like BACKBONE, PONTIFFS, DROWNERS, ASPIRING. If they sometimes can't remember exactly how many points those words earned, well, they almost always remember the precise details of which letters were already on the board, and which they had to play.

"It's not just the points," explains Kate Watson. "It's the emotional high."


I'm still staring at my tile rack. The clock is now down to eighteen minutes.

Is there a place on the board to lay down TERRACE? CATERER? If there was an L and I already played, I might be able to make TREACLIER.

Is TREACLIER even a word?

The dirty secret at Taco Bueno tonight is that, as much as I might like to look upon the members of the Mid-Cities Scrabble Players as a bunch of asocial nut jobs, I've long regarded myself as something of a closet Scrabble freak. My mother and I have been playing the game for years. And while we have a pretty loosey-goosey set of rules for our family play -- no time limits on how long you can take during a turn; a list of viable two-letter words kept close by -- we both can't seem to find any other family members or friends to play with us. We have a bad habit of criticizing others for wasting their S's and blank tiles.

Yet no game I've ever played with my mother could possibly prepare me for the heart-racing intensity, the daunting impossibility, the sheer lexigraphical incomprehensibility of what's unfolding in front of me right now. Mary Rhoades has invited me to sit in on a few games tonight, and I'm paired first with Bryan Pepper, a 47-year-old fleet manager with LabCorp -- a man with a serious countenance and a seriously crafty way with letters.

"That's a racial slur," he explains, unapologetically, as he lays down three letters to spell ABO. "Some Scrabble groups don't allow them, but this one does." (Slurs and curse words are also allowed in championship play, but I learn later that this is an ongoing controversy which "rocked the Scrabblesphere," according to Time magazine, in 1994, after Hasbro decided to remove nearly 200 offensive words from the official Scrabble dictionary.)

My first thought: Now this is exactly the sort of no-punches-pulled, politically incorrect Scrabble game I can get behind.

My second thought: What group of people could this slur possibly refer to?

"It's a slur against aboriginal people," Bryan says, reading my mind; and while I apologize to any aboriginal readers for my insensitivity in this matter, I'm convinced this has to be made up. (That said, I'm too intimidated by Bryan's authoritative presence, and the swift, declarative fashion in which he lays down his tiles -- to even think of challenging.)

The game carries on, in silent, steely concentration. Despite my initial fears, I do not run out of time. And while I don't score any bingos, I do manage to score over 300 points. I'm particularly proud of my use of the word FROCK, which scores me 40 points. (The K is placed on a triple letter score, and the entire word is double.)

Turns out, though, that Bryan thinks this is the only wrong move I made the entire game -- because in order to play FROCK, I had to use a blank tile for the F.

"Hold on to your blank tile," he tells me, like a parent lecturing his teenager about drunk driving before handing him the keys to the car, "unless you can score 60 or more points."

Next I'm paired with Kate Watson, and this time my game falls apart. She's a focused, relentless player, constantly scribbling possible words and letter combinations on the pad next to her. The very first word she plays is DISHIEST -- a bingo. Virtually every one of her subsequent words scores her more than 50 points.

Meanwhile, I find myself struggling with "good" letters -- E's and R's and D's, which are easily turned into prefixes and suffixes -- that I nonetheless can't seem to form into a big word.

"Just get rid of your U and wait until your next turn," my opponent advises, sensing my exasperation.

Hey, Kate, stop looking at my tiles!

I do eventually acquit myself in this match, scoring a bingo with the word DINETTE and tallying just less than 300 points. But the entire experience is confidence-bruising; like I couldn't even put up a fight. I walk away from the table, too, reminded of why some people find Scrabble lovers so friggin' annoying.

"I knew the meanings to all of your words, except that one," I say to Kate at the end of the game, pointing to one of her plays: MIAOUS.

Her matter-of-fact response: "It's the sound a cat makes."

Gathering of the geeks

According to Chris Cree, there are approximately 30 players -- himself included -- whom he thinks have a feasible shot of winning the tournament this year. Predicting beyond that, however, would be a fool's game: There are too many variables; the luck of the draw often comes into play; and as with any high-stakes game, a single mistake can mean the unraveling of an otherwise peerless player.

What is certain, though, is that for the next week in Dallas, Scrabble geeks from all around the world will feel a little less lonely. Perhaps more important: An old-fashioned, board game featuring two people together at a table will continue to flourish in the age of virtual reality games and online avatars. Indeed, the Internet, says Cree, has had a curious impact on the game. On the one hand, the popularity of online Scrabble sites and the Scrabble Facebook application turns the game into a bit of a cheat -- who knows if the other person is also fiddling with an anagram program at the same time?

But, Cree says, it's also helped to swell the ranks of the North American Scrabble Players Association -- more people who find themselves leaving the online world and seeking out the face-to-face, clock-is-ticking experience of playing in competition. One day soon, they will have their own tales of tiles they couldn't play, or bingos just missed, or eight-letter words that magically, miraculously stretched across both Triple Letter Word spaces.

As I leave Taco Bueno that night in July, Chris Schneider has one more such tale to share with me. Earlier in the night, I had asked him what was the biggest word he had ever played, point-wise.

Presently he asks to borrow my notepad and pen, and draws a picture of a Scrabble board, showing me the letters that were on the board, and then listing the tiles on his rack, V-I-E-E-O-A and a blank. .

"What word do you think you could you play from that?"

I shake my head. I can't see any possibilities.

Then, with my pen, he shows me that, by stretching across a "D" and "T" that were already on the board, he could play the word VIDEOTAPE.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw that," he says. "I don't think it earned me that many points, but that's the word I'm proudest of."

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