Live From the National Scrabble Championship

So for those that are not aware, I am currently in Dayton, Ohio, competing in the National Scrabble Championship.  I’m not at all competing for the National Scrabble Championship, of course; I’ve only started playing in tournaments six months ago and am playing in a much lower division.  But it’s been some terrific competition, and more than anything it’s a great chance to play my favorite game against people that are clearly very good at it.

A few people have asked me what it’s like here, and my first response is usually something along the lines of, “It’s big.”  There are 495 registered participants in the tournament, and they have rented out an entire floor of the Dayton Conference Center.  Every game is one-on-one, so that’s nearly 250 games of Scrabble going on at once, all under one roof.  It’s a sight to see.

Almost everyone has played Scrabble at various points in his or her life.  It’s one of those games that is well-loved around the world, mostly because every single game is uniquely different.  With twenty-six letters and a hundred tiles, the combinations and words are seemingly endless…and this is expanded to the extreme by the usage of the official Scrabble dictionary.  Looking within, most people cry foul when they see words like AA (a type of lava) or XI (a Chinese spiritual force).  These words aren’t actually made up; what Hasbro did was build a large collection of words from several major unabridged dictionaries.  I’m sure you remember that 400-pound dictionary from the local library…those are the ones they used.

Therefore, when you play Scrabble with the official dictionary, the game really opens up as soon as you learn all of the two- and three-letter words.  There are so many more plays available.  From there, it gets crazier as people try to earn the big fifty-point bonus for using all seven of their letters in one turn.

There are a lot of common words in play, but even in Division 5 (where I’m playing) you see some incredible plays being made.  I’m trying hard to study to catch up, and frankly I don’t think I’ve played a single person that doesn’t know more words than I do.  I think I’m just a little better at the game itself:  doing the math per turn, leaving better tiles on the rack for next time, making defensive plays, etc.  So that’s by far the hardest part for me:  knowing which words are genuine, and which words are phony.  In Scrabble, the responsibility is completely up to the opposing player to know the difference; if someone plays a word and I don’t challenge it, it counts anyway.  And if I challenge incorrectly, I lose my turn and they get to go again, racking up more points.  For me, I’m simply trying to play detective and make educated guesses, for the most part.  Because a lot of the time I don’t know if they’re bluffing or not.

Some example of words that have been played against me in the first 2 1/2 days here:  SILEX, INERTIAE, AFREET, APERY, and TENRECS (all of which are good).  I’ve managed to play others like ISATINE and RETINUE, but the amusing part is that I have not had a single word challenged in eighteen games so far.

It’s because everyone I play already knows all of the words I know.

But somehow, I have managed to scratch and claw out wins.  I try to sense out the players that take too much time, playing faster myself to put more pressure on them at the end of the game (they only have 25 minutes total).  I try to bait them with smaller potential plays to distract them from looking for the big ones.  I play the few fancier words I know whenever I can to bluff them into thinking I know a ton of words (when I don’t, relatively speaking).  Sometimes I win games, only to look back and wonder how the hell I ever got away with that one.  And of course I’ve gotten clobbered a few times, serving a good reminder that all in all, I’m over my head at the moment.

Luck finds its way to you sometimes, though.  In one game this morning I was losing the entire game, including being down by 70 and on my last seven tiles…then found MOTIONS and WEEN (adding on to WEE) to win the game in one turn.  Staring at the tiles, I couldn’t remember how WEAN was spelled, and simply got lucky that WEEN was also good.  In another very amusing moment, I could have won the game with a bingo (using all seven tiles), and I found the word FLATTER, thinking  of the common definition “more flat.”  I had an S to lay down FLATTERS, but my mind dismissed FLATTERS as not being a word and I lost the game because I couldn’t find anything in time.  It’s very funny how the mind works, particularly when it is working overtime.

We’re about to head back into the afternoon session, during which I lost all three games yesterday afternoon.  This morning, however, I returned to win all four games and jump back into the heat of things.  It’s always a roller coaster, but at the moment I’m truly not caring much about where I finish or what my record is.

I’m just enjoying playing Scrabble.

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