Seven Letters and a Cloud of Dust

In world championship Scrabble, words don’t mean a thing.

By Daiva Markelis

The current world Scrabble champion, Joel Sherman, is having a bad day. His train arrived late this morning, the first day of a two-day spring tournament at the Elmhurst Marriot, causing him to miss his first two games. Worse, someone stole his bag of custom-made golden yellow plastic Scrabble tiles. Having the proper tiles is of the greatest importance in formal competition–a serious player would no more dream of using the wooden squares that come with the game than Michael Jordan would consider playing basketball in Keds.

Sherman’s having dinner at Edwardo’s with the current national Scrabble champion, Brian Capalletto, and my boyfriend and wannabe champion, Marty Gabriel. All three are competing in the top division, but after eight rounds Sherman is nowhere near the top. Capalletto is in second place, Gabriel in first, which is something of a coup. I’m tied for sixth in the third division, which is next to the bottom, and playing only tolerably well.

Sherman hopes that his status as world Scrabble champion will increase his chances of finding a girlfriend.

Gabriel asks if there’ve been any takers.

There is a contender, a Scrabble groupie, says Sherman. But she smokes. “Even I have my standards.”

He’s eating chicken salad, we’re eating pizza. Capalletto thinks pizza is the ideal evening-before-the-competition food. Gabriel agrees, crediting the pizza we had last night for his good performance today. Then again, he credits many things for his victories: the shirts he wears (silk and brightly colored), the music he listens to on his way to the tournament (Mozart), his lucky pens, his vitamins. But food tops the list. No eggs for breakfast. Pancakes aren’t bad, and neither are bagels. Lunch must be either a Subway sandwich or chicken tacos from Taco Bell–the taco sauce contains some miraculous brain-enhancing substance.

Scrabble players include lawyers, retired businesspeople, housewives. Rosie O’Donnell plays, as do Homer and Marge Simpson. Graham Greene loved the game. Capalletto mentions a woman who used to be a high-class madam. Sherman’s ears perk up. “Is she from here?”

“Yeah, but she moved to Vegas.”

Sherman’s visibly disappointed.

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about competitive Scrabble is that the top-ranked players are verbally creative people–professors of English literature perhaps, or individuals who’ve picked up a big vocabulary through voluminous reading in a variety of disciplines. In reality, top players get where they are through obsessive study of lists of words. Activities such as reading and writing just get in the way of serious rote memorization, as do family, friends, and careers. “Scrabble is my life. Everything else is just a game,” reads one popular T-shirt. A woman wrote to “Scrabble News” describing how she’d wallpapered her house with pages of the Official Scrabble Dictionary so she could study them. Gabriel, voted nicest patrol boy in grade school, occasionally mentions that spending time in jail would give someone lots of time to study words.

Another misconception is that you have to know the meanings of words to be a good player. But meaning is a relatively superfluous concept in Scrabble. The Official Scrabble Dictionary doesn’t even bother with definitions.

On Sunday morning the organizers of the tournament are making sure that players have their official score sheets and that there are enough sharpened number-two pencils to go around. A few players are setting up their boards. Some people have their boards glued onto a large wooden or plastic circle and the peripheral area decorated with bright little tiles. Others prefer their boards set in a bare expanse of fine wood varnished to a glossy finish. And of course some think a no-frills board works just fine.

No respectable player, however, uses the flimsy burgundy tile bag that comes with the game. At tournaments there are bags made of velvet, bags made of fur, bags intricately embroidered with flowers, musical notes, Scrabble tiles, cats.

Sherman is pacing about frowning. Gabriel is sucking on a packet of Taco Bell taco sauce.

I’m feeling confident. I woke up with an almost religious sense of well-being and calm that in the past has predicted a good day of Scrabble. I call this state the Scrabble zone. When I’m in the zone, nothing matters except the seven letters in front of me.

Gabriel thinks “zone” is too New Age, but he knows what I’m talking about–when you’re playing well and drawing well, when you know almost by instinct that “boarding” can take an S but “heating” can’t, when the board is crowded with seven- and eight-letter words and most of them are yours.

I win all five of my games, ending up in third place. This is an ordinary tournament–one of more than 100 held each year in the United States and Canada–but I’m elated. Gabriel is happy but not elated, having dropped from first place to third. Sherman has moved up to finish second but looks more disappointed than Capalletto, who has finished fourth.

I clutch my envelope of winnings, $40–the same amount as the entry fee. I’m ready to ease back into real life, to have a nice dinner.

“You go ahead, honey,” Gabriel tells me. “Brian and I are going to play another game.”