Part of an occasional series of oral histories, as told to Anne Ford
I was the first minor to get really good at Scrabble—the first child prodigy, if you want to call it that. I won my first tournament when I was 16. My senior year of high school, that was really when I felt like I was establishing myself. My first national tournament was in 1987, when I graduated. I think I finished fifth. Even in my 20s, I was still generally the youngest or the second-youngest guy in the room.
When I was seven years old, my grandmother introduced me to the game. I beat everybody in my family most of the time. Then, when I was 11 or 12, I happened to have a neighbor who was involved in competitive Scrabble. I would go over to his house on Monday nights, and he would just destroy me. He never showed any mercy. He would play fake words, and I would have no idea. One of those Monday nights, I beat him. Once.
Finally, when I was 15, I went to my first [Scrabble] club. I won one game that night. Barely, but I did. I said, “OK, if I’m going to go back and do this, I’m going to do it right.” I learned all the two-letter words, and I learned all the letters that went before or after them. Now you have programs which cull the data and print it out for you, but back in the mid-80s, I had to do it by hand [looking through the Scrabble dictionary]. The next week, I won three games.
The first few years, it’s all you think about. Every street sign I saw: “Hey, I’m on Touhy. That’s youth. What’s ‘LaSalle’ plus another letter? That would be lamellas and allheels.” It just consumes you.
This is a list of all the words [allowed in Scrabble]. I don’t know what half these words mean. I mean, howe—what’s that? I don’t care. All I care is that it’s a noun, and you can pluralize it. You can’t get this in a bookstore, by the way, because this one has all the naughty words. There are also derogatory words. At the national championship of 2004, they showed the finals on ESPN. The rule was you could not play the banned words. There was a lot of argument about it. People were saying, “You can’t play redskins on ESPN? How much sense does that make?”
You want to have the blanks. But to me, timing is what it’s about. Would I rather have minaret on my rack, or would I rather have six vowels and a blank? You’re just not going to go anywhere with the vowels.
I didn’t win my first national championship until ’98. It was here in Chicago that I finally won. I got to go on the Today show. You get to stay at a nice hotel and have a few nice meals, and it’s all on them, and it’s great. Everybody wants to talk to you for, like, the next few days. And then—nothing. Nobody’s calling you. It just stops.
I won the world championship in 2001. That was in Vegas. I wore this Hawaiian print shirt for the finals. When I played vozhd, I had a pretty good idea that I’d won. I haven’t played in it since then. There was enough going on with the game in the U.S. that the climate was better here at the time. It’s kind of reversing, actually; it seems like there’s more money in the international events now. In December, I go to Malaysia to play in an event that features all the former world champions except one.
I had a really close second-place finish in the nationals in 2008. Then I stopped playing for a while—it made more sense to concentrate on my MBA. Since I got it [this spring], I’ve gotten back into the scene. My first event back was a local Memorial Day event, which I bombed. There’s a road to getting back up to speed—if you don’t use it, you lose it. As for nationals, I finished second. There have only been two guys who have repeated the national championship. There’s too many good players out there. You just don’t know if it’ll ever be your week again.