DAY 1: SATURDAY,
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.
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.
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.
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
DAY 2: SUNDAY
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."