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Anne Bernays
November 18, 1985
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November 18, 1985

To Unbe Or Not To Unbe: A Journal From This Summer's Scrabble Open

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Play begins approximately on time. It is Round 6. Again, I wander around the tables, peering at boards with weird words. Vomito, qoph, nelumbo, narna, atony. A judge named Sandy points to a player and tells me, "That guy in the white shirt is known for playing phony words." During the morning break, I talk to C. Christopher Cree (30, materials handling, Dallas), a blond, smiling jock type who hugs everybody. He claims to have a normal memory. (They all say this, but I know it isn't true.) Cree does admit, "I think about Scrabble an awful lot."

I notice that one judge is a nun—Sister Constance Loeffler. She carries her OSPD held open against her bosom like a missal.

I talk to Bill Wade (26, teacher, Brookville, Ind.). He started playing Scrabble at 10, now teaches math in junior high. Wade makes the claim that Scrabble builds a person's vocabulary. (They all say this, but it really doesn't. Most players learn words, but not what they mean.) Wade has memorized all eight-letter words ending in ing plus 26 computer pages of common seven-and eight-letter words that contain the vowels A, E, I and O.

I chat with Pat Barrett (36, home-maker, Houston), thin, glamorous, outgoing. She has three children. She started playing five years ago. She and her husband manage a Scrabble club in Houston. She trains by recording new words on tape and playing them back to herself. She has 42 hours of word tapes. She says, "Women won't try as hard as men. They won't hang in there." That may be why only one woman, Linda Gruber, is ranked in the nation's top 20. But, Barrett says, "I tore up Gruber by 192 points. She made the mistake of challenging chewink and lost. I got 98 points for that one. My heart was fluttering."

I talk to Charles Goldstein (38, poker player, Berkeley, Calif.). "I'm known as the Karate Kid of Scrabble," he tells me. He's ranked 18th in the country. He really does make a living playing poker, but he says, "Winning at poker doesn't mean anything to me. It's only money. Scrabble's my life."


More goofy words appear on the boards. Vanda, brome, vawntie, ghi.

Gruber is playing Charles Armstrong (36, security super, Saline, Mich.). "Security super" means he's in charge of a maximum-security loony bin. He barely beats Gruber.

Round 13 is now finished. Nabutovsky has dropped to No. 44, and he looks frazzled. His mother, the word authority, tries to console him but gets nowhere. In round 14 Nabutovsky plays Ted Blevins (35, residence hall director, Morehead, Ky.). He challenges gabbroid and loses. He wants and gets a second opinion. He loses again. He lowers his head to the table. "I need a shroud after this game," he says.

A shout shatters the silence: "We need a doctor!" A middle-aged female contestant is going limp at her table. Her head lolls, her eyes close. There are six doctors playing in the tournament. All six leap co assist. They lower the woman to the floor and raise her legs. She is out cold. After five minutes of unconsciousness, the woman sits up, blinks, returns to her chair—and finishes the game.

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