In Ballroom B of Los Angeles' Universal City Hilton Hotel, David Gibson looked down with no small concern at the little wooden rack in front of him. He had the letters N-U-T-T-I-E-R, a slim lead and a steely-eyed Princeton math whiz named Adam Logan staring across the board at him. It was the kind of moment in which Scrabble championships are won or lost.
"I needed a bingo," Gibson recalls, referring to a play that uses all seven tiles and earns a 50-point bonus, "but my only move was to start with one of the letters that was already on the board. It looked bad—and then suddenly a mnemonic hit me It reminded me that N-U-T-T-I-E-R can be combined with any of the consonants s, c, q, n, g and b. I looked down, and, lo and behold, there was an n sitting out there. I was blessed. Because what's nuttier and an n? Nutrient, of course."
Nutrient, of course. But whether being blessed had anything to do with Gibson's bingo, which helped him to go on to win the $60,000 1994 National Scrabble Championship last August, is something else. Gibson, a bearded, soft-spoken 44-year-old math professor at Spartanburg Methodist College in Spartanburg, S.C., is being typically modest. Tournament Scrabble is played strictly two-handed, and with a time clock. It is less like the game we all played when it rained during our childhood vacations than it is like championship chess—or rather a combination of chess and high-stakes poker with rules dreamed up by Lewis Carroll.
Scrabble experts speak of tile tracking, board development, rack balance and the endgame, and they regularly plan half a dozen moves ahead. Add to this the standard tournament schedule—27 games of a Scrabble played over five days in a ballroom filled with as many as 400 testy, tile-rattling aficionados impersonating attendees at a seashell-sorters' convention—and you get the drift. Under such conditions Gibson's won-lost record of 23-4 at the nationals was spectacular.
Since the Los Angeles tournament the new champion—who sounds like and may be as nice as the Gary Cooper character Longfellow Deeds in the film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town—has defied the experts by placing second in a tournament held in. Cocoa Beach, Fla., last November and thereby retaining his No. 1 ranking. But the minor miracle was that he ever became restless enough to try for the top ranking at all. Last summer marked only the second time in Gibson's life that he had been west of the Mississippi, and even then it took last-minute prodding from his wife and Scrabble muse, Nancy, to persuade him to make the trip.
More remarkably, until recently Gibson was an unknown in the Scrabble world. Although he has played in the occasional tournament since 1986, he prefers to spend up to three hours a day studying the "18,000 or so" flash-cards Nancy has prepared for him and inscribing mnemonics in his annotated Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary. To keep himself match-sharp he depends on weeklong, 120-game marathons at his home with a handful of other top-level players, particularly Bob Lipton, a retired croupier from Vero Beach, Fla.
"Imagine there's a guy who plays tennis exclusively on his backyard court and who decides to show up one day at Wimbledon," says John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association. "Then he wins. That's about what David's done."
If Gibson's relative anonymity was atypical for a ranking Scrabble player, his math back-round wasn't. Because the game is as much about probability and geometry as it is about words, a disproportionate number of Scrabble experts aren't the literary types you might expect but math and science teachers and students, or computer programmers. It's arguable, in fact, whether top Scrabble players even care about words. As one Division I (top-level expert) player puts it: "Words are a red herring. Think of them as rules, not words. Scrabble is a game with 100,000 rules. We just learn the rules."
Words or rules, they didn't come naturally to Gibson—despite the fact that his parents, who own an auto-parts locating company in Charlotte, N.C., played Scrabble weekly when he was growing up. "I was a slow reader, and the first time I took my SATs I scored very high in the math and 430 in the English portion," he says. "When I took my GREs after I graduated from Furman, same thing: over the 90th percentile in math, 19th percentile in English.
"Then while I was teaching in Spartanburg, in 1985, I started visiting my folks on the weekends, when I noticed my mom working crossword puzzles. Being competitive, I figured I'd start working them too. And one day it just happened; I was eager to know about words. I started getting up two hours early just to read the whole paper, even the fashion section, which I couldn't care less about. About a year later I read an article about a lady in her 70's who played tournament Scrabble, which I never even knew existed. I called her up out of the blue, she ended up tutoring me, and as though it was meant to be, one thing led to another."