A week before anyone was following the NFL playoffs, Scrabble fans were following the NASPA tournament in Albany, New York: a three-and-a-half-day gathering of word nerds from across the United States and Canada. As the snow softly blew outside our hotel, we hoisted our tile bags high, plucked out what letters fate might give us, and clicked them onto round rotating boards before slapping the clock.
Below, a fly-on-the-wall view of Game 13. I'm seeded nineteenth in the intermediate division, up against a math tutor from Connecticut and struggling to shrug off a losing record. Four turns apiece, a couple of lucky draws, and I'm up 172-58. What play should I make next?
That Triple Letter Score in front of LINT catches my eye, as it becomes a sextuple when combined with the nearby Double Word square. GAMER, making GLINT, scores 34 points and leaves the promising E-R duo on my rack for the next turn.
Crisscross word games are more popular than ever. Chances are, you have a few matches going on your phone; maybe you played with your folks over the holidays. My own addiction began with Scrabulous, that elegantly simple app yanked from Facebook after a trademark infringement lawsuit in 2008. Words With Friends has done the most to fill its shoes, but c'mon: it allows trial and error and harbors way too many H tiles. If you too are a purist, point your pals to the Internet Scrabble Club, where you will have the additional pleasure of playing in real time.
My opponent responds to GAMER with LIER, putting me up 206-76. Now what?
I consider FAY on the upper right Triple Word Score for 35 points, making FER and AR, but I keep looking. DEFRAY, down from the D in COD, scores a cool 51.
If you want to take your word showdowns outside of the pixelated screen, I'd suggest checking out a club or tournament near you. It's even more fun with live people, many of whom will become lasting friends. Please don't be intimidated by the best-selling book Word Freak or the delightful documentary Word Wars: we're a diverse crowd and you don't have to memorize the dictionary to feel at home here. The thousands of Americans on the organized Scrabble scene range from factory workers to professors, from middle-schoolers to retirees. Their common denominator is a lexical zest.
Five turns later. My opponent has rallied with two bingos, but I get away with the phony word "NUKERS" (yes, bluffing is part of the game), so I'm still ninety points ahead.
Looking for a place to dump ZILL, I spot ZILLAH on the upper left for 36. Although I've never studied the six-letter Z words, I'm fortunate to have seen this one somewhere before. No, I don't know what a zillah is. That's like asking a writer what his story "is about."
Speaking of middle-schoolers, the most spectacular thing about this year's tournament was the fact that the expert division was won by a 12-year-old, Mack Meller, who triumphed by a five-game margin over several former national champions many decades his senior. It made me wonder if Scrabble, not football, could be the quintessential American sport. Over a 15 x 15 board and a hundred tiles, you don't need to be a physically gifted anomaly in order to succeed. You can achieve glory based on your effort, your creativity, your passion, and a few lucky letter combos. Now if only they could put it back on ESPN...