Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

-A.D. Amorosi

-A.D. Amorosi

September 5-11, 2002

naked city

Word Up

A best-selling book, movie deals, thousands of dollars in prizes -- this is Scrabble?

On the last day of my mid-August San Diego vacation, I finally went outdoors, and immediately wished I had done so at the beginning of my trip. The San Diego Zoo was something to behold — all those beautiful words. Zebu. Kopje. Ibex. And not just words, but nouns. This meant they probably take an S on the end, a detail that might have helped me considerably at the 2002 National Scrabble Championships from Aug. 17 to the 22 in San Diego.

Seven hundred fellow vacationers also left San Diego that week without suntans. Instead, they took home tales of high-scoring plays with “power tiles” (the above animal names, containing power tiles such as J, X and Z, are frequently played by players oblivious to their definitions), ludicrous misspellings of common words, and apparently ludicrously misspelled words that happen to be legit. The tournament, the largest national Scrabble tournament ever, featured 31 games played over five days, six divisions, $90,000 in prize money, and more than 7.5 million points scored (tournament Scrabble players tend to average 350-400 points per game, though a top player having an A-game may hit 600).

Though it would be hyperbolic to call competitive Scrabble “hip,” the 54-year-old game has become quite the media darling recently. The Simpsons has featured at least three references to Scrabble in its 12 years on the air: In the series’ pilot episode, Bart played the phony word “Kwyjibo,” which nine years later became the moniker of a computer virus that disabled hundreds of thousands of computers. On the final day of the Nationals, a dozen cameramen and reporters lent a celebrity-trial mood to Table 1. Five Scrabble documentaries are in the works as well as two major motion pictures, one by L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson.

If produced, the Hanson film would be based on Word Freak, the Houghton Mifflin book that, though only a fringe best-seller, revolutionized competitive Scrabble, boosting club and tournament attendance to all-time highs and enabling young, otherwise well-adjusted people to admit to playing in Scrabble tournaments without fear of social anomie. Written by Wall Street Journal reporter Stefan Fatsis, Word Freak chronicles the author’s quest to become an expert Scrabble player, profiling some of the curious characters of the game’s subculture along the way.

Though tournament Scrabble is demographically balanced — with its fair share of blacks and whites, millionaires and unemployables — the highest ranks tend to be populated by left-brained men between the ages of 25 and 50; Jan Dixon, a Wilmington accountant who plays in the Philadelphia club and is among the top 50 U.S. players, is an exception. Contrary to its reputation as a game for language-lovers, high-level Scrabble rewards the memorization skills of a savant, the calculating capacity of an engineer and the moxie of a poker player.

Though most competitive Scrabble players lead fairly normal lives, you wouldn’t know it from the profile of Division One winner and “professional Scrabble player” Joel Sherman, who shortly after winning the $25,000 top-division prize regaled a Scrabble competitors’ listserv with a long e-mail that interspersed game commentary (“My second sloppiest game was the round 22 game against Jakkrit, in which I not only phonied with MUTERS but took an automatic 52-pt. X drop holding VERBG and failed to look for a 51-pt. VER(N)IX that cleaned the rack better”) with details of the gastrointestinal problems that have earned him the nickname “G.I. Joel.”

“Word Freak was aptly named — with a heavy emphasis on the ‘freak.’ These people are insane,” says Terry Kang, a 41-year-old Philadelphia lawyer who began playing serious Scrabble after she read the book last year. As an example, Kang describes how an exuberant 13-year-old British Columbia girl named Dielle Saldanha breathlessly badgered her, “What’s your cume? What’s your cume?” to determine whose cumulative point spread was better. Kang finished an impressive fifth of 88 Division Six competitors, but Saldanha got the last giggle by winning the division, its $1,000 prize promising to keep her in ’N Sync posters for far longer than she’ll be able to tolerate them.

Jim Kille, a 30-year-old Philadelphia dispatcher, typifies the Scrabble obsessive. “I spend considerable time organizing my scoresheets,” he says with suspicious earnestness. Kille played in Division Four (as did I, where I finished 16-15), and like most players his level or better, he studies word lists without regard to definitions, which are useful in tournament Scrabble only when they indicate which prefixes and suffixes can be added to them. “I’ve studied the top 3,000 seven- and eight-letter words, in order of probability.”

Kang plays at the same Philadelphia club with Kille; she concerns herself more with “stylish, obscure bingos” — she bragged about playing “fellatio” against a 90-year-old opponent — than the neatness of her scoresheets. During one game last year, she remembers, “Jim leans over to me and says, ‘You shouldn’t be holding onto the Q for so long,’ and I said to him, ‘I know how to play.’ So I sorta felt bad, because he was acting all mousy the rest of the night.”
Jim and Terry started dating seven months later.

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