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I Thought I Could Beat a Scrabble Champion but Found Out There’s No F in 'Way'


Published September 27, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

David Spargo (right) playing Noah Horowitz at the Boardroom in Burlington - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • David Spargo (right) playing Noah Horowitz at the Boardroom in Burlington

Essex Junction resident David Spargo claims to know every five-letter word in the dictionary. Prompt him with a set of letters, and he can recall all 9,383 of the words they form, to be exact.

Just don't mistake his ability for an advanced vocabulary.

"Ninety percent of words I know, I have no idea what they mean," Spargo said. "I just like knowing that things are words."

Spargo's talent may seem obscure, but it's not uncommon in the world of competitive Scrabble — a niche community of roughly 2,500 people across North America for whom reading the dictionary is not an outlandish pastime. The 26-year-old South Burlington High School graduate competes at about 10 tournaments each year all over New England. With an average score of more than 400 points, he's currently ranked first in Vermont and 73rd in North America.

Though he learned the game from his grandparents, Spargo started playing competitively in college through a club at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology. Disheartened by the lack of a Scrabble scene when he moved back to Vermont, he started the Burlington Scrabble Club in February. The group, which boasts a record attendance of 10 people, meets every Wednesday at the Boardroom, a board games café in Burlington.

Spargo said he wants to revive Scrabble at a time when competitive players like him are a dying breed. Hasbro stopped funding Scrabble tournaments in 2009, and the game's popularity has waned.

At the 2023 championship in Las Vegas, about 100 players competed for a $10,000 prize. That may seem like a lot of Scrabble fanatics, but it's nothing compared with competitive Scrabble's golden age in the early 2000s. A record 837 players competed for a prize pool of $100,000 at the 2004 National Scrabble Championship in New Orleans, which aired on ESPN. That same year, Cathy Resmer wrote for Seven Days about playing in an 80-person tournament in Lake George, N.Y.

Spargo sees his club as a way to get more people involved, he said. But for newcomers, there's a steep learning curve: All games are one-on-one and have a time limit — a chess timer counts down from 25 minutes per player with a 10-point penalty for each minute of overtime. As an anti-cheating mechanism, players hold the bag of tiles aloft with one arm and draw tiles from it with the other.

Competitors sometimes bluff, purposely playing "phony" words they know won't appear in the Scrabble dictionary. Players can challenge any word they believe is phony, but it's a high-stakes maneuver. Competitors who lose a challenge or get called out on a phony forfeit a turn.

Spargo "phonies" all the time. In 2022, he earned the sixth-highest score in Scrabble tournament history, 756, at a tournament in Brattleboro. Most of his turns in that game were phonies, said Spargo, who played scientific-sounding words such as "solonium" and "celobite."

"Was this my most ethical win? Perhaps not. Do I have any regrets? Definitely not," Spargo wrote in online notes recapping the game.

Another key aspect of the game is "bingos," or plays that use all seven tiles at once and earn competitors 50 bonus points. Spargo averages two bingos per game. His highest-scoring one was "mishears" for 203 points, played through two triple word scores.

To pull off words like that, Spargo said, he studies for about an hour every day. He uses flash cards with words on one side and letters in alphabetical order on the other. That way, during a game, he can assemble his rack in alphabetical order and unscramble just as he practiced.

  • Daria Bishop
  • Scrabble

The hard work is paying off: Spargo said he wins about a third of the tournaments he enters. But Scrabble victories don't pay a living wage, so Spargo works as a software engineer at Vermont Systems in Essex Junction by day.

He said his analytical skills are a big help when it comes to Scrabble, which he views as a math game. It's an optimization problem to maximize a score, Spargo said, and he's constantly assessing the probability of drawing certain tiles.

"If you have the kind of mind that can do problem solving for software and for coding, that kind of mindset and way of thinking is really helpful when it comes to Scrabble," Spargo said. "There's a lot of probability and statistics that go into it."

Last Wednesday, I went to the Boardroom to see Spargo in action. By the time I arrived, he was patiently waiting with an already-set-up board and a chess timer he'd brought from home. Sporting a kempt beard and an "RIT Tigers" muscle tank, he seemed more aptly dressed for a weight lifting competition than a board game.

Before we started, Spargo asked me about my Scrabble experience. "I've played casually," I replied, bracing myself for a shellacking.

The procedural matters alone were intimidating. After every play, I had to write down the word, call out the score, cross off which tiles had been played and hit the buzzer — all without running down the timer.

As a newcomer, I was granted certain privileges. Spargo gave me freebie challenges and overtime without penalty. He also handed me a cheat sheet with common two- and three-letter words, along with common words containing J, Q, X and Z. For example, I learned that "zzz" is a word — though probably the most useless word in Scrabble, since it would have to be played with just one Z and two blanks.

Those advantages proved futile. By only the third turn, Spargo had played "subpoena" on a triple word score for 83 points.

On his fifth turn, Spargo played "campo" for 26 points. "That's Spanish!" I proclaimed.

Spargo dared me to challenge. Of course, there it was in the dictionary — though Spargo didn't know its meaning: a grass plain with occasional stunted trees.

I was proud of my highest-scoring play, "quag," on a triple word score for 42 points. But to no avail: The final score was a whopping 487 to 219.

"You did a really good job with the procedures," Spargo kindly told me after we shook hands.

At around 6 p.m., the lone Scrabble club member of the night showed up. Noah Horowitz, 24, had heard about the club on Facebook and been to two previous meetings. He was getting the hang of things, he said, his scores steadily improving.

"This [cheat sheet] really helps with the barrier between playing with someone who's really experienced and someone who's not," Horowitz said. "I now know all of the base words that are really helpful."

Yet, against Spargo, Horowitz fared no better than I had. He lost, 485 to 210.

Spargo doesn't win every Scrabble club game. Other expert players who have showed up at the Boardroom include Jeffrey Nelson, ranked second in Vermont, and three-time national champion Joe Edley. Even Scrabble celebrity Mack Meller, the No. 1 player in America, once stopped by.

Most of the time, though, Spargo is leaps and bounds ahead of the pack. Still, he encourages everyone to come try the game, regardless of their skill level.

"It really doesn't matter how much you know about Scrabble or how good your vocabulary is," Spargo said. "Whether you win or lose, it's just about having a good time."

Burlington Scrabble Club, Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at the Boardroom in Burlington. $6 table fee.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Word on the Street | I thought I could beat a Scrabble champion but found out there's no F in "way""

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