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A Word in the Hand

Falling under the spell of serious SCRABBLE

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Anyone who thinks board games are boring has never played in a SCRABBLE tournament (the name of the game is trademarked, hence the capitals). Tournaments resemble your average living-room match the way putt-putt golf resembles the PGA Tour -- it's basically the same game, but taken to an entirely different level.

Last fall, I entered my first tournament, an 80-person, 15-game, three-day word extravaganza at the Tiki Resort in Lake George, New York. My most exciting moment was when I played the word ARANDINE.

It's not uncommon, at tournaments, to see a word you don't know -- many are outrageously obscure. But don't feel bad if you've never heard of ARANDINE. It's not really a word.

I knew it wasn't a word. Or rather, I suspected it wasn't. It's often hard to know for sure, especially since, if it were a word, it would appear in the Official Club and Tournament Word List (or OWL). But it was already the seventh game, and so far I had only won one. ARANDINE was a strategic gamble; I played it through an N already on the board. Using all seven of my letters, it was a feat worth 50 points, known as a bingo. It would put me in the lead. I figured I had nothing to lose.

My opponent, Mary Lou Goetz of Annapolis, Maryland, was immediately suspicious of ARANDINE. I announced my score -- 72 points, and stopped my clock. Tournament players have only 25 minutes each per game. But before I could draw any plastic tiles -- tournament tiles are plastic, not wood, because it's too easy to feel the letters on the wooden kind -- Mary Lou said, "Hold." Precious seconds ticked away on her clock while she decided whether to challenge my word.

Seeing a way to use it for herself, she let it go. She placed an S on the end and made a new word. I waited until she had announced her score and hit her clock. Then I raised my hand to alert the word judge as I said, excitedly, "Challenge." I wrote ARANDINES on a small sheet of green paper and handed it to the man with the OWL. "The play is not acceptable," he said.

Goetz, whose customized SCRABBLE board was covered with cartoonish angels, cast me a dubious glance. "Well, that makes me wonder about ARANDINE," she muttered. Though she beat me, 365 to 291, my phony word remained on the board, a monument to my chutzpah.

But chutzpah didn't carry me far. I finished the event with a 4-11 win-loss record, after suffering several ignominious defeats, including one at the hands of a doddering old man who totally spaced out between turns and kept forgetting to hit his clock. I wasn't cutthroat enough to take advantage of him. I came in 35th out of 36 in the Novice division, earning a somewhat disappointing national rating of 695 -- the intermediate division starts at 1100, expert at 1600, and the top players rate in the 2000s.

Still, I left the tacky Polynesian Tiki even more hooked on SCRABBLE than I'd been when I arrived. Sitting in the Waikiki Supper Club, surrounded by cheap, fake wooden tribal masks, I realized that I hadn't felt such a sense of exhilaration since I'd stopped playing high school sports. Despite the massive amount of sitting down the game requires, I consider it as a kind of sport. So does ESPN -- the network broadcast its first SCRABBLE tournament last fall. Performing under that intense pressure is a rush, and I can't wait to do it again. In fact, I just signed up for the Saranac Lake tournament in April.

*****

Though SCRABBLE was developed by the unfortunately named Alfred Butts in the 1930s, the organized tournament scene didn't arise until the 1970s. Today players who like to travel can conceivably play in several tournaments each month in North America alone. The National SCRABBLE Association, the body that governs the tournaments and issues player ratings, started in 1978. It serves the approximately 10,000 tournament players in the U.S. and Canada (there are roughly 25,000 worldwide).

Two years ago, I decided to become one of them. My partner's grandfather bought me an NSA membership for Christmas in 2002. It came with some basic word lists (the two- and three-letter words, the U-less Q's), my official membership card, a copy of the NSA newsletter and a directory of North American SCRABBLE clubs. I looked under Vermont and found a club in Danville (it now meets in St. Johnsbury), run by Tim Hogeboom.

Before attending a meeting, I played a few games with Hogeboom, an Intermediate-level player, at Radio Bean. The fit, now 51-year-old freelance videographer came across as quiet and bookish, a genuinely nice guy. And he is. But he's also a schemer. He warned me straight off that he likes to play phonies, a disclosure that in retrospect seems like part of his strategy. I somehow managed to win a game against him -- I think he was going easy on me -- before he kicked my ass.

I knew I was way out of my league when he added an I to COAT to make COATI. "That's gotta be a phony," I thought. I challenged it. Hogeboom looked it up in his tattered copy of the OWL. There, between COATERS and COATING was COATI. "It's a kind of monkey," he said almost apologetically. That moment fueled my SCRABBLE obsession. I suddenly realized that a) there were lots of words I didn't know, and b) other people do know them. I'm a compulsive reader. I majored in English in college. I'm a writer. But in my first few games with a real tournament player, I started to realize just how much I didn't know about the English language.

After my initial games with Hogeboom, I started studying in earnest. I bought Joe Edley and John Williams' book Everything SCRABBLE, a how-to manual with chapter titles such as "Your Two Best Friends -- the Blank and the S," and "The Heavy Artillery -- J, X, and Z." I learned the 96 two-letter words, the U-less Q words, some important vowel dumps -- AALII, OIDIA, OURIE, for example -- and, on a whim, all of the words that begin with OO, like OOCYST, OOLOGY and OORALI.

Hogeboom also introduced me to Annette Zeff, my other tournament mentor. The 69-year-old retired English teacher moved here with her husband from Philadelphia last year. Zeff had been active in the Philadelphia club and has played in tournaments for a decade. She's rated near the top of the Novice Division. She and Hogeboom hooked up via Internet -- both of them are avid Internet Scrabble players. She even has a webcam.

Zeff was a real find, and I liked her from the start. She endeared herself to me as she unpacked her custom-made blue, circular board, mounted on a lazy Susan, before our first game last summer. She carries it in a black, Zildjian cymbal bag. As she set the board on the table for our first game, I noticed that mock plastic SCRABBLE tiles, arrayed vertically on either side of the board, spell out her name, "Annette" on one side, "Zeff" on the other. The motif continues on the backs of the blue tile racks, which say, simply, "Annette." It's just so cute!

So I was surprised when, on the third turn of our first game, Zeff played the word FUCK. It's completely legal, despite an effort in the mid-'90s by political correctness zealots to "clean up" the SCRABBLE lexicon. These sensitive souls were offended by words like DYKE, KIKE, SHITHEAD, BLOWJOB and TURD. In response, Hasbro, which owns SCRABBLE, published the bowdlerized Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary, Third Edition (the OSPD III). You can buy the OSPD III in bookstores. You have to join the NSA to buy the OWL. When I assured Zeff that I wasn't offended by the profanity, we had a good laugh. I followed up by playing YID.

Zeff has taken me under her wing and given me good advice: Always punch your clock after your turn; never announce a word after you play it, especially if you're not sure about it, because the word might sound stranger than it looks to your opponent; and most importantly, if you're unsure about a strange word, don't ask "What does that mean?" This is her biggest pet peeve. Only neophytes ask that question while the game is in progress. Serious players will challenge a word if they're unsure about it, or will let it go and look it up after the game.

Zeff announced this dictum to the Burlington Area Club at our last meeting. Tired of driving to the Northeast Kingdom to play, I formed the group last September with help from her. "I don't want to hear anyone ask what a word means," she said as eight of us prepared to play. "That question is off limits."

I was afraid my first opponent, Eli Schwartz, was going to ask it when I played FUGU. To his credit, the 20 year-old UVM senior said merely, "I've never seen that one before." He didn't challenge it, which was a smart move, because unlike ARANDINE, FUGU is good (the OSPD III says it's a toxin-containing fish). I memorized it along with 13 other U-Dumps, those three- and four-letter words with two U's. I remember the list by singing it to the tune of the theme song from "Gilligan's Island."

Though I bested Schwartz, 375-317, I wasn't as lucky against Jane Whitmore, a fortysomething newcomer. She lay down a bingo, PRATTLE, putting the A on top of RAJ. "ARAJ," I said, violating Zeff's prohibition against pronunciation, "I'm going to have to challenge that."

"Oops," she said, "for some reason I had it backwards. I thought it said AJAR." She started rearranging her tiles.

"Hey," I objected, "You can't do that!"

"Yes I can," she corrected, "I haven't announced my score."

Doh! She was right. We were playing without a clock, and I had spoken too soon. She bingoed with PRATTLER instead, through the R in RAJ, and won 375-268, proving that sometimes it's not about how many words you know, but about knowing when to keep your mouth shut.

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