SI Vault
S.L. Price
December 18, 1995
Seemingly civilized and cerebral, championship Scrabble is actually a CUTTHROAT world where GUTS, GUiLe and GAMES MANSHIP are PUSHED TO THE LiMiT
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December 18, 1995

Your Words Against Mine

Seemingly civilized and cerebral, championship Scrabble is actually a CUTTHROAT world where GUTS, GUiLe and GAMES MANSHIP are PUSHED TO THE LiMiT

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A[1] man and a woman spend enough time together, this day is going to come. The way Jim Geary figured it, they'd had enough meals, seen enough movies, chitchatted enough already, so why wait any longer? Isn't he the game's newest star? Didn't he bust into the elite faster than just about anyone, ever? Doesn't he have that necessary drive, the tools, those empty killer eyes? Yes, he's as cocky as an unbroken colt; lose to Geary and you might well hear him chuckle as he celebrates the power of "the Jimster." Someday, he likes to announce, everyone will point and say, "There goes the best who ever lived." Shouldn't she know too?

So here it is, the moment of truth. Just the two of them, at her place. Jim Geary turns to his girl and blurts it out: I'm a world-class Scrabble player.

There's a shadow, one flicker, of incomprehension—and then she smiles and takes his hand. She understands! "I have a hobby, too," she says. She pulls him into the bedroom, reaches down. "I do this for fun," she says, and he can't believe what he sees; it's a kind of horror. In her hands she holds a lacy, white, formfitting...doily.

One man stands at the blackjack table in the baccarat pit at Bally's in Las Vegas. He has been here all night, but this being the gut of a Vegas casino, there is, of course, no telling that it is now Wednesday or morning or August or someplace in the swelling bustle of the latest American boomtown. Out where the slot machines pop and whistle, the suckers are just now filling the place with a growing wave of touristy blather, but Chris Cree hears nothing. He is exhausted. He is cursing with glee. Three separate hands lay on the green before him, at $5,000 per. Behind that stands a mountain of chips.

"Just 40 minutes ago, I had him down $15,000," mumbles Eric the dealer. Two large men without necks, casino boys, loom behind Eric. They don't look happy. "Then he went on a break...and I don't know what happened. Now he's up $150,000."

Cree keeps winning. He's on that lifetime roll, insulting Eric the dealer, doing no wrong...but now someone starts tugging, gently, at his sleeve. A friend is telling him: The Scrabble tournament is about to begin. You're late. You've got to come upstairs now. Cree's eyes don't register. Eric the dealer looks up from the cards. "Is that a sport?" he says.

Scrabble? Not hardly, not in the strictest sense: When you consider that its most demanding physical task is the lifting of a lightweight pouch to eyebrow level, that the verb best describing the vital act of pulling small lettered tiles from said pouch is rummaging—no, this crossword board game isn't a sport. Then again, in a universe that recognizes synchronized swimming, bodybuilding, rhythmic gymnastics, dog racing, Ping-Pong, biathlon and Don King boxing bouts as legitimate sporting enterprises, maybe we shouldn't be so choosy. Some 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada dabble in Scrabble; and while for many the game lies fallow under Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit until holidays force families to do something wholesome together, the Scrabble player who toils at the game's highest level is an entirely different animal—brilliant, obsessive, cutthroat competitive.

And never more than now. Since its invention by architect Alfred Butts in 1931, Scrabble has played poor cousin to chess and bridge, held dear mostly by crossword freaks and nickel-a-point hustlers in grimy game rooms like New York City's Flea House. No one made a living at it; Scrabble's world-championship event, now worth $11,000 to the winner, wasn't even held until 1991. But since the Milton Bradley Company took over the game in 1989—and began pumping cash into tournaments—Scrabble's hard core has solidified into 10,000 registered players across North America, the better ones gathering in 110 regional tournaments, the best gunning for the $15,000 first prize at the biennial national championship. And you'll find none of the old-line Scrabble corps complaining. "I love money," says 60-year-old Lester Schonbrun, one of the original Flea House hustlers and an unrepentant disciple of Karl Marx. "Most Communists do. You can't escape the smoke that's all around you, even as a Communist."

Here in Vegas the air is thick with smoke and money and the shock of the new: An unprecedented $50,000 first prize goes to the winner of the first-ever four-day, 54-player, 24-match $100,000 Scrabble Superstars Showdown. There has never been anything like it. The Showdown, which begins as a round-robin competition whose results determine the later-round matchups, is simply the richest and most stellar tournament in history. With even its $20,000 second prize dwarfing the top prize for a U.S. or world championship, it has lured two world champions, seven U.S. champs and four other legendary talents—Brian Cappelletto, Charles Goldstein, Richie Lund and Peter Morris—out of retirement. There is a reason. That kind of money can change everything. That kind of money allows one to quit a job, change a life, become the first-ever Scrabble professional....

"I cain't be-leeve it!" Cree's Texas screech cracks the calm of the baccarat pit. He is standing at the cashier's window, holding his check. "I won $177,500!"

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