When most people think of Scrabble, they think of a leisurely game night in grandma’s living room.
But for a few thousand people, the iconic board game is a competitive, adrenaline-filled, highly cerebral discipline, worthy of hundreds of hours of study and a lifetime of obsession.
I’m one of those few, and last month, I flew to New Orleans to compete in the North American Scrabble Championship with 400 fellow word nerds.
The tournament was a marathon — 31 games in five days — that pushed me to the brink of mental exhaustion. But it also offered an illuminating look into a quirky subculture that toils in relative obscurity, far from the confines of grandma’s living room.
Here’s what it’s like to play in the biggest Scrabble tournament in the country:
The tournament playing room was a scene to behold. Most of the nearly 400 players hailed from the US and Canada, but some travelled from countries as far away as Thailand and New Zealand.
The competition was open to players of all ages, so long as they're members of the North American Scrabble Players Association.
I've been playing tournament Scrabble since high school. Like many players, I got serious about the game after reading 'Word Freak' by Stefan Fatsis, a journalist who explored the underground Scrabble scene and eventually became an expert-level player.
As the first day of competition got underway, the room was nearly silent, save for the sound of thousands of rattling plastic Scrabble tiles.
Players were separated into four skill levels based on their player rating, calculated using results from previous tournaments. This was my first Scrabble tournament in several years, and my rating put me in Division 3, the 52nd seed out of 89 players.
Tournament Scrabble is played very differently than the casual living-room game, starting with the equipment.
Players use plastic, laser-printed tiles instead of the wooden engraved tiles that come in a standard set. That's to prevent 'brailling,' a method of cheating in which a player feels the tiles inside the bag to select a particular letter.
All games are timed, 25 minutes per side. Players hit the clock after each move, signalling the end of their turn. There's a 10-point penalty for each minute you go over time.
But the most obvious difference between tournament Scrabble and the casual game is the words. Scrabble players commit hundreds of hours to memorising obscure words from all corners of the English language, from 'aa,' a word of Hawaiian origin referring to a type of lava, to 'zyzzyva,' a tropical beetle.
To the unaccustomed player, it's hard to believe some of these words are actually English. But each of them can be found in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.
Tournament directors -- some of whom wore New Orleans-appropriate accessories -- were on hand to settle disputes between players.
Down in Division 3, where I played, it's typical to see a 'closed' board, meaning a very defensive arrangement of tiles without many openings for long words.
But elite players, with their superior word knowledge, play a much more open style, as evidenced in the board below.
Strategy plays a huge role in Scrabble. For example, on every score sheet, there's a space for players to cross off each letter as it's played -- kind of like counting cards in blackjack. If you track correctly, you'll know exactly what tiles your opponent has by the end of the game.
Win or lose, players loved discussing their strategy immediately after each game. Particularly interesting debates often drew a crowd.
Good players average more than 400 points per game, and it's not uncommon to crack 500. But the highest score of the entire tournament was a whopping 620 points.
One of the tournament directors, Daniel Stock, kept players entertained between rounds by crafting linguistic works of art like the one below. Each of his masterpieces uses all 100 tiles and contains only words that are Scrabble-acceptable.
He also arranged 'tableaus' that not only used all 100 tiles, but gave real-time tournament updates.
We played seven games a day and three on the final day for a total of 31 games. Even the strongest players had trouble staying sharp after that much Scrabble.
In their downtime, other players stretched their brains with a variation of Scrabble known as 'Clabbers,' in which any string of letters is valid as long as it can be re-arranged into a valid word.
There was also a bizarre variation of the game from Thailand that used numbers and mathematical operations instead of letters and words. (It hurt my brain just looking at it.)
Nerves were high on the final day of the tournament, with three games standing between the contenders and thousands of dollars in prize money.
I managed to finish in 8th place in my division with a 19-12 record -- not bad for the 52-seed. I won $250 in prize money and a new dictionary.
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