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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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Workers are setting up for the 1985 North American Scrabble® Open in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton Boston Hotel. Tables to accommodate all 302 finalists, six to a table, have overflowed the immense room into an annex. As I look over the scene, I wonder what a roomful of Scrabble addicts will look like. Moments later a huge man suited up in Paul Revere-style duds enters. He is muttering to himself. Is he a finalist?

I go upstairs to the Commonwealth Room, where a reception for contestants is under way. Small room, big crowd, animated greetings between old friends and old opponents, much Scrabble talk. I overhear someone say, "At that point I pulled 'clivias' and she bought it!"

It turns out that top-drawer Scrabble addicts come in a variety of sizes and shapes. There is a woman with a tattoo on her upper arm. Two other women are wearing Scrabble blouses, which I learn later are cut from Scrabble bed sheets. One man is sporting an honest-to-god wooden necktie.

Each contestant wears a name tag. Jay Levin (28, writer, Ridgefield Park, N.J.) assesses the field for me: "There's good and there's really good," he says. Levin claims he never studies words, not even for national championships: "I go in cold." Darrell Day (28, magazine editor, Arlington, Texas) tells me that he learns 150 new words every week. He has the taut, confident look of a winner. Peggy LeMay (64, retired secretary, Bay City, Mich.) is a synchronized-swimming teacher. She is relaxed, saying, "I came to have fun. The killers need their victims." The reigning national champion is Joel Wapnick (39, professor, Montreal), a slight man with a black mustache who looks like what he is—a professor of music. He is not wearing a name tag, nor does he need one. Everyone here knows the champ.

Welcoming ceremonies begin. A man speaks into a mike: "Thirty-three million people now enjoy the game." Really? I catch sight of Paul Revere pacing and mouthing words. A small, alert man named Alfred Butts is introduced. He is 85. He is the inventor of Scrabble. He speaks briefly to the reverent gathering. Mainly he plugs his latest invention, Alfred's Other Game, a variation of Scrabble that you can play solo. Alfred Butts leaves the stage. Paul Revere is called up to the mike and he, it turns out, is a sort of town crier who is there to read a proclamation from the mayor of Boston declaring July Scrabble month in Boston.

The reception ends, and I walk out with David Nabutovsky (28, U.S. Post Office supervisor, St. Petersburg, Fla.). He says that he is seeded second even though he claims that he has an "unretentive memory." Nice fellow, though he seems nervous. Who wouldn't be, going into a national Scrabble championship with an unretentive memory?


Games are to begin at 10 a.m. and the schedule says: "Players assemble, confirm opponents, count tiles." Someone grabs my sleeve and asks if I'd like to interview Alfred Butts. Up close the inventor of Scrabble looks like Frank Perdue. He shows me his original Scrabble board with the squares drawn on blueprint paper. Butts was an out-of-work architect when he invented the game in 1931. I ask him why there are so many I's in the game (there are nine). He says he took one front page of the New York Times and simply counted up the frequency of each letter. He used that ratio to assemble the letters in Scrabble. He says, "I's are good for prefixes and endings." Alfred Butts insists he has always been a poor Scrabble player. True, perhaps, but he is certainly not a poor businessman. He received royalties for the game from 1948 until 1971, when the Selchow & Righter Company bought the game. An estimated 90 million games have been sold during the last 30 years.

The 10 a.m. starting hour comes and goes. Workers are still busily laying out equipment for each pair of contestants—Scrabble board, chess clock, letter racks, four pencils, two ballpoint pens, one one-minute egg timer (to suspend play while challenges are being considered). People are counting wooden letter tiles, 100 to a bag. Half the bags contain red tiles, the other half bright blue ones. There are 15 word judges scattered around the ballroom to rule on challenges. Each wears a white apron stamped with large black letters: THE WORD AUTHORITY. Each carries a copy of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), which is also known as "the bible."

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