Beyond the Board: My Life as a Competitive Scrabble Player

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Beyond the Board: My Life as a Competitive Scrabble Player

Patty Hocker

Patty Hocker

Patty Hocker

Chloe Fatsis

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It’s round six of the 2018 North American Scrabble Championship. I’m sitting in a huge convention center surrounded by 400 other word fanatics. Across from me sits a middle-aged man from Pennsylvania. The seven letters on my rack are E, M, N, N, S, T, and U.

I look at the board and see an open H. Somehow, from those letters, my brain unscrambles the word HUNTSMEN. I’m not totally convinced that it’s a real word. I play it anyway. My opponent challenges. It’s acceptable. How did I know HUNTSMEN? I have no idea. Maybe I guessed. Maybe I’d seen it before. All that matters is that it was worth 78 points and I won the game, 437-282.

That was one of 31 games in the five-day marathon Scrabble championship held last summer in Buffalo, New York. There are hundreds of smaller tournaments throughout the year. I played in my first one when I was just 10. Ever since, I’ve been studying word lists and playing game after game. I got into Scrabble because of my dad, who wrote a book about the subculture of competitive Scrabble, called “Word Freak.” He’s taught me pretty much everything I know about the game.

This is my fifth “nationals,” and the first time I’ve competed in Division 2, out of four. Placement is based on a rating system—the top player at the tournament is rated 2140, and the lowest 441. I’m rated 1269, which places me in Division 3, but I decide to play up a division. I’m seeded 98th out of 102 players. I’m a little worried.

 

Day One

Custom-made Scrabble boards and colorful plastic tiles fill the giant convention center. There’s chatter and the familiar sound of tiles rattling in a bag.

Months of preparation and anticipation are finally over. The tournament begins. My first play is MOPED for 26 points. My opponent counters that with the common two-letter word QI, which the “Official Scrabble Players Dictionary” defines as “the vital force that in Chinese thought is inherent in all things.” I play one bingo—a word that uses all seven tiles and earns a 50-point bonus—OREIDES, “an alloy used to imitate gold.” I win narrowly, 361-354. Phew.

Despite the common belief that Scrabble is a test of vocabulary—a word game—it’s actually a math game. Scrabble is about spatial relations, strategy, and probability. To excel at Scrabble, you need great board vision—seeing as many plays as possible based on the arrangement of tiles. You also have to do actual math. If you’re losing by 70 points at the end of the game and your only hope for a win is to draw a bingo, then it’s important to calculate the likelihood of drawing certain tiles that will yield one. Strategy improves over time, but the best players have a natural ability.

I finish the day with a 4-3 record. I’m okay with it. In the last game, I play, of all people, 2017 Wilson graduate Sam Masling, another protege of my dad’s from elementary and middle school Scrabble clubs. My dad (who’s playing in Division 1) sees that we’re playing, laughs, and takes a picture. Masling is rated way higher than I am, but in Scrabble, anything can happen. I win, 390-372.

 

Day Two

To start the day, I blow a game to a woman who’s vaping into her sweatshirt. I could’ve won, but I opened a spot for her to score a lot of points (OM for 43) because I mistracked which tiles are left, and ended up losing. Grr. (That’s acceptable in Scrabble, along with BRR.)

I’ve never seen anyone else vape during a game, possibly because the vast majority of people I play in Scrabble tournaments are adults. When I was younger, some of my older opponents would talk down to me and treat me like a little kid. Now, not so much.

A small handful of us are under 18. Between games, I check in with other young players that I’ve gotten to know over years of school and rated tournaments. We compare scores and records and plays. We even have signals to find out how the others are doing during games—stretching means you’re winning, resting your hands on your head means you’re losing.

I go 4-3 for the day again, putting me at 8-6 and in the middle of the pack. The Division 2 competition that I had been nervous about isn’t so hard to beat.

After the official tournament games are done and dinner is eaten, we head down to an after-hours room. To do what? Play more Scrabble. Not just your usual Scrabble, though. My friends and I play Anagrams, in which you make words out of a pool of letters in the middle of the table. The other players can steal your words by adding more letters from the pool to turn them into new words. The goal is to have the most words as possible by the time the tiles run out.

Someone has the word LAWYERING in front of them. There is a Y in the pool and I shout, “WEARYINGLY!” I grab the tiles and move them in front of me. No one steals that word.

 

Day Three

Of the top 50 Scrabble players in North America, zero are women. I’m pretty sure I’m one of two ranked female players under 18. Why are the best Scrabble players men? From what I’ve observed, men are much more likely to be super devoted to Scrabble and will study hours upon hours a day, while fewer women are likely to be that invested.

Pretty much all competitive Scrabble players, including me, know the 105 two-letter words and the 1,081 three-letter words. After learning those, I’ve used online study programs to memorize the 4,000 four-letter words and thousands of seven-and-eight-letter bingos. Mack Meller, a sophomore at Columbia University who is ranked fifth in North America, pretty much memorized the entire Scrabble dictionary in high school. Unfortunately, I won’t (and probably can’t) do that.

Being one of the only girls in Scrabble can be a little frustrating. So it’s refreshing to finally see another young female player at this tournament: a 12-year-old girl from Texas who ends up placing second in Division 4.

The day doesn’t go well; my 2-5 record leaves me at a frustrating 10-11 overall. But I do make some nice plays—most being the products of all of that studying. In round 15, I play EUPNOEA, which is defined as “normal breathing.” I don’t know the word because I’m a biology geek (which I’m not). I know EUPNOEA because it’s the 1,246th most-probable seven-letter bingo, and I’ve studied way more than that.

 

Day Four

With only 10 games left, I’m just hoping to finish with a positive record. But pretty soon, I’m…winning. Over lunch, a player asks how I did this morning. When I tell him I won all four games, he says, “what?!” and asks why I didn’t mention it sooner. I’m trying to keep my cool.

But the day just keeps getting better and better. Game five: 469-328. Game six: 431-370. Game seven: 365-361. I’ve never before gone undefeated in a day of nationals—or in any other tournament, for that matter. It’s a great feeling.

My best game of the day, or maybe even the tournament, isn’t one where I play fancy words or score a ton of points. It’s when I play strategically at the end of the game and squeak out a win. My opponent and I are neck and neck—I’m at 359, she’s at 360. I have the Q on my rack and realize that I can score a lot if I draw an I. Luckily, I draw it, and lay down QI for 37 points on my last turn for the win.

Games like that are the most gratifying because they require skill. When I play an endgame correctly, I know that I could’ve easily lost if I made one blunder. Instead, I won because I thought things through.

 

Day Five

People sometimes ask why I even play Scrabble. I get it. Competitive Scrabble sounds pretty nerdy. But it’s also exhilarating and challenging and intense. There’s excitement. There’s a wonderful community. It’s like any sport, really—the best athletes work extremely hard to get where they are, just like the best Scrabble players.

But I’m not one of those experts. Sure, I’ve studied and played a bunch—I’ve competed in dozens of school and rated tournaments and actually have won more than $3,000 from Scrabble—but I’m no pro. Still, when I’m at a tournament, I don’t care about anything else—all my focus is on the game.

On the last day of nationals, all my attention is indeed on the game. After my undefeated day, I find myself with a 17-11 record and in 18th place with three games left. I have a chance of placing in the top 10. That would be crazy.

I win my first game 358-308. But the streak doesn’t last. I lose two close games to two much higher-rated players. I’m not even close to disappointed, though. I finish 18-13 and in 21st place (one spot ahead of Masling) and even win $150. My rating jumps to 1427. I’m now ranked 369th in North America, almost 200 places higher than I was before.

I can’t wait until next year.