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I see Nabutovsky still looking jittery. He tells me, "I got up at seven o'clock to study four-and five-letter words." I ask him if he can explain some of the fine points of the game. Despite his nervousness, he agrees to do this. He says that V's and C's are good blocking letters at the ends of words. He says that there are fewer than 200 words in the entire OSPD that contain three I's. He says that if you draw four E's you should throw them back because the duplication limits the number of words you can create. Nabutovsky introduces me to his mother, Harriet, who is one of the word judges.
The system for getting the official scoring forms to contestants is excruciatingly slow and there is much grumbling at the delays. Tension in the room is increasing. Someone deals with it by juggling three rubber balls. Joe Edley (37, publisher, San Francisco) is playing a rapid Scrabble game with himself, using two racks. I interview Jan Jarrell (29, bookkeeper-accountant, Wilmington, Del.), an expert on rules. She tells me that the initial pairing of contestants is done by random selection, and that all contestants had qualified in two earlier regional tournaments. This I understand, but the remainder of her explanation seems hopelessly arcane: "You divide the whole field into groups of six, then the top-ranked 50 players play one of each group below them and that goes on till Wednesday when we go into Swiss pairings...." I know that I should ask what Swiss pairing means, but I figure it will become clear by Wednesday. Instead I ask Jarrell how good women are at Scrabble compared to men. She says, "Well, I'm a killer, but none of us is as mean as the guys are."
Now a deep, authoritative female voice booms through the mike: "Players, please take your seats!" This is Martha Downey, a tournament director. She says firmly, "Some of you are not happy with some of the rules. I'm sorry." Then she reads rules about late arrivals ("Tough luck, you lose the time"), use of rest rooms ("Your clock keeps on ticking"), clock starting, counting your score ("Don't do it out loud"), challenging, etc. She goes on sharply, "Verify the accuracy of your opponent's scorecard. Any clerical error will cost you 100 points. If you don't like it, that's too bad."
At last the pairings are listed. It is noon, and still play has not begun. Some people start games for the heck of it. More time passes. A computer is down. We go to lunch. I sit next to Wapnick, the champ. He looks very relaxed. He says, "Well, I've already won it." He is referring to last year's championship. Wapnick has a Ph.D. He is also a pianist. He maintains that luck is a minor factor in winning. He says, "I memorized 1,500 bingos [words using all seven tiles that earn an extra 50 points each] in a sequence." It turns out that this is a table of heavy hitters. I recognize the names of several top contenders. There are teachers: Paul Avrin (42, New York City), John Ozag (40, San Francisco), Jim Neuberger (38, New York City). Then there are Ronald Tiekert (38, editor, New York City) and Joe Edley. Tiekert, Edley and Neuberger discuss strategy with great seriousness. I am beginning to realize that Scrabble masters are obsessed with the game. I ask Wapnick if he dreams about it. Yes, he says. Before the 1980 tournament he had a dream in which, instead of tiles, he held 11 playing cards.
Lunch is over, and finally, at 2:16, director Downey instructs players to draw letters to see who goes first. Suddenly 151 bags of tiles are being shaken all at once, and the first of 22 rounds of tournament Scrabble begins.
For the next 50 minutes or so, the ballroom is quiet, except for an occasional soft cry of "challenge," whereupon a judge rushes over with the OSPD. The player writes down the questioned word on an official slip of paper. The judge looks up the word in the OSPD, finds it either acceptable or not acceptable and checks the appropriate box on the slip. If the player doesn't like the judgment, he can ask for a second opinion. One of the four tournament directors then delivers the final verdict. On one of the days of the tournament, 742 words are challenged, 439 of them successfully.
I wander among the tables, gingerly at first. But most players are too intent on the game to notice me. I peer over their shoulders. I see that some players don't bother to turn the board around. I see some words I simply do not believe: ka, revers, jow, yonis, ofay, aby, voe, deva, ganof.
Between 2 and 8 p.m. five rounds are completed. Media interest has been building. TV cameramen are filming a judge turning pages to look up a word in the OSPD. The tournament turns up on all three major networks' nightly news programs. Upstairs, a large screen shows the games on closed-circuit TV. Two commentators are at work, analyzing some of the moves and predicting others.
During breaks, contestants spill out of the ballroom to the lobby, in which large charts are tacked up showing each player's progress. Every conversation overheard is about Scrabble—and only about Scrabble.
DAY 3: MONDAY