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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Louis Schecter is a lucky man. Few voices in Scrabble carry more authority than Lund's; the game is too important to him. Everyone knows: Richie Lund, born in Brooklyn, raised in Phoenix and shattered in Vietnam, owes Scrabble everything but his life.

Rack balancing? Clutch bingos? Deep word knowledge? Tile management? Sure, Richie Lund has all that at his command, which would be more than enough to secure his spot among the game's elite. But with Lund there is an essential drama to his game that is unique: In 1985, after months of study and play in the Scrabble game anchored in New York City's Washington Square Park, he emerged from nowhere at the North American Scrabble Championship in Boston and stunned one of the game's masters, Stephen Fisher. On the pivotal play of his final game, Lund reached into the realm of obscurity and played "twinborn"; Fisher challenged the word, unsuccessfully. "One of the greats," Lund says, laughing at the memory. "And he wasn't sure of it!" Lund finished third—like some club pro disposing of Jimmy Connors on Super Saturday—and became an immediate Top 10 force.

But not just because of talent. Lund has won plenty of tournaments but never a major title. "He has a bizarre genius," says Williams, "so he's respected beyond his accomplishments." Maybe that's because, in the nebbishy world of Scrabble, the 48-year-old Lund is a walking anomaly. With long ponytail and a uniform of black jeans, black T-shirt and three heavy gold chains, he cuts a figure somewhere between Hell's Angel and rock star. He lives by park code—he's the one top player who neither tracks his tiles on paper nor ever asks for a recount during tournaments—and his Marine Corps training and random giggle all make for a fiery, intimidating presence: the Dark Lord of Scrabble. "It's like playing Meat Loaf," Nyman says. "He's this Vietnam vet...and, ah, well, it's just the way he stares at you." Then there are the explosions: At a tournament in Waltham, Mass., in 1992, Lund shattered the mumbling, abbeylike quiet with a screaming response after another player, Merrill Kaitz, gave him the finger.

"I've never seen anything like this," says Matt Graham, a stand-up comic who until recently had been one of the game's rising stars. "Richie says, 'Give me the finger?! I'll break that finger off and shove it right down your——throat!' He'd quiet down and start thinking about it, and then he'd have to let Merrill know again."

Lund, a chemist for Con Ed power company, has a reputation for charm and generosity, but always on his terms; he maintains a clean distance. Lund does not play or communicate on the burgeoning Scrabble network on the Internet, and he has a tendency to drop out of competition abruptly and lose contact with even his closest friends—as he did for six months this year. Part of his recent funk had to do with discovering, in December '94, that his clogged arteries required a triple-bypass operation. At the last minute Lund didn't go through with it, but the knowledge that he was living with a time bomb in his chest so affected him that his game declined. Just before Lund sank out of sight in January, Graham pummeled him in an unheard-of four straight games in New York. "He was sick, coughing...but I'm not going to let up on him," Graham says. "I mean, this is Richie Lund."

Months later, just as abruptly, Lund resurfaced in Washington Square. "His family, his friends, people in the park—nobody knew where he was," says Betty Aberlin, an actress whose recurring role in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood may have been the best preparation for her friendship with the self-named "parkies." "And when he turned up again, he acted like he hadn't been gone at all."

That's nothing. On this, the first day of the Showdown, Lund's mother, Reggie Green, is sitting in a chair with her daughters Rondi and Diane, watching him as if he were some kind of revelation. Reggie and ex-husband Victor hadn't seen their son for eight years—but, again, that is nothing. Diane hadn't seen him for 13 years. Rondi hadn't seen him for 24. One reason is that Lund hasn't boarded a plane since Vietnam, and it is a long train ride from Brooklyn to Phoenix. The other is more complex. "It was just tough for me to be around anybody," Lund says. "Just people...I'd have to go in the opposite direction. Having this motorcycle, being able to jump on it, just go, get away from things. Getting away...getting away...getting away...getting away...."

In 1965, at the age of 17, Lund joined the Marines. By the next year he was a radio operator carrying a PRC-25 on his back for the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. He spent 26 months in country, weathered the pounding of 152-mm shells at Khe Sanh, and took "a smell of rotting flesh and napalm and cordite': in his nose that he has never quite washed away. Too many buddies died there. Between tours, Lund went home to Phoenix once. "I think he felt guilty for being alive," Reggie says. "He came back and it was Thanksgiving Day and I was standing in the kitchen and all of a sudden I just stopped dead. My daughter was helping me, and I said, 'Richard's at the door, Rondi.' " Rondi told her mother that nobody had knocked, but she opened the door and "he was just standing there and sweat was running down his face and it wasn't even hot. Just running down his face. When he came back [from Vietnam] he was dead inside. Absolutely dead."

One night Reggie was rubbing her son's head and it was late and he began talking about the things he'd seen, about the bodies of the Marines he went to find and how he found pieces dangling in trees; about the time he stayed on the radio for three days and four nights to keep a cut-off squad from losing contact; about how one of his closest friends was blasted to pieces by a land mine; about how he came to a Green Beret camp as dawn lifted and it was too quiet and dozens of American boys lay scattered in the dirt, stripped and bloody and dead. " 'It's too horrible to tell anyone,' " Reggie says Richie told her. "And he never talked about it again."

Lund was mustered out in 1969 and spent the next six years back home, wandering the country, doing drugs, odd jobs, nothing much. "I felt comfortable only with fellow soldiers, so I isolated myself," Lund says. In the mid '70s he began college in Brooklyn. He saw a flyer for a Scrabble club; he'd played as a kid. He became very good very quickly, but the best thing about Scrabble was that it didn't leave room for memories. "It helped a lot," Lund says. "It just gave me something else to focus on. I get into it, it pretty much occupies my thoughts, takes it off other things that can be damaging to me." He lived in New York. He didn't talk to his family much.

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