Where it led, of course, was to the entrancing loony bin that Scrabble purists have inhabited since an unemployed architect named Alfred M. Butts invented the game in 1931. There may be pastimes as addictive, but it's hard to imagine another group of obsessives who are as much fun to watch.
One of Gibson's most formidable tournament opponents these days is an Orthodox Jew from Toronto named Zev Kaufman, who ingeniously circumvents the Talmudic proscriptions that seem to prohibit playing Scrabble on the Sabbath. To sidestep the rule against writing, or "the permanent placement of letters." Kaufman eschews the snap-in deluxe Scrabble board on Saturdays for the old recreational board we are all familiar with, on which tiles tend to slide all over the place. To record his points, he has tournament officials hire a Gentile.
Even Kaufman's dedication pales in comparison with that of another group of Division I players Gibson has come up against recently: a squadron of Thais who fly to major North American tournaments from Bangkok, which itself hosts one of the largest tournaments in the world—in English. The Thai competitors can't speak the language; they're just great Scrabble players. They've learned the rules.
All this cosmopolitan intensity might have been expected to faze a down-home Spartanburg boy. But the new champ is quickly developing a reputation as a kind of affable gunslinger who displays an uncanny coolness under fire—and whose level of preparation astonishes even his fellow mavens. At tournaments he tends to pass up the recreational side games played by others well into the early-morning hours and instead stays in his room, where he eats trail mix he brings from home and receives long-distance pep talks from Nancy. Although Gibson won't, volunteer the assessment himself, Scrabble aficionados say he has reached the elite level of play previously restricted to the game's reigning triumvirate: Joe Edley, the editor of the Scrabble News, from Coram, N.Y., who has won the national championship twice and is considered Scrabble's Bobby Fischer; Joel Wapnick, a Montreal music professor who is the game's Greg Norman (twice in the past three years he has been within a single game of winning a major tournament, only to see victory slip away); and Mark Nyman, the current world champion, a 25-year-old quiz-show producer from Leeds, England, who has been successful in North America despite having to contend with a difference of several hundred words between the OSPD and the British Scrabble dictionary, the wordier tome he uses at home.
"Edley never beats himself, Wapnick has tremendous word power, and Nyman is simply brilliant," says Williams. "Gibson, who you have to put up there now, I would class as an incredibly dedicated student of the game. After the tournament he actually asked me to send him a box full of all the challenges that had been played, just so he could study them. He reminds me of Pete Maravich with a basketball; he just can't get enough of it."
Pistol Pete, and again, Mr. Deeds. After beating his practice partner, Lipton, to win the title, in the 25th game at Los Angeles, Gibson was interviewed on TV and treated to the first room-service meal of his life. Then, as discreetly as he could, he asked Williams to distribute $10,000 ($7,500 after taxes) of his $15,000 prize to the rest of the players who had participated in the tournament.
"I kind of felt that it was more important that the other players meet their expenses than for me to take home all the money," Gibson says. "Plus I wanted to make a gesture to Milton Bradley, the sponsor, who's done so much for us. I kept $5,000 to give to Nancy for her mom, who has some medical expenses. We don't really need anything else. Like I said before, we're blessed."
So is the pastime with the little squares. Imagine Nick Faldo giving away half his prize money; Shaquille O'Neal, half of his salary. It's ironic that you have to watch a game of Scrabble to find the combination that eludes us so often these days: a champion and a sportsman.