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Two minutes into the 11th and final round of the 1991 Boston Area Scrabble Open, the ballroom of the Guest Quarters Suite Hotel in Waltham rattles and clicks like a forest of cicadas. Dozens of competitors are drawing lettered tiles from velvet bags. At the front of the hall, 18 top-ranked players—the tournament's Premier Division—compete on deluxe game boards. At stake is a trophy, a $200 prize and valuable rating points on the National Scrabble Association (NSA) ladder. Because the NSA's top eight players are to compete in the first-ever Scrabble World Championship, to be held in London Sept. 27-30, this year's Boston Open has taken on a special significance.
Among the Premier Division players is Arizona State University junior Brian Cappelletto. For his second word, the 21-year-old from Phoenix plays SEVERELY, laying all seven of his tiles in what Scrabble enthusiasts call a "bingo." The bingo's 50-point bonus gives him an early lead over his 55-year-old opponent, Lester Schonbrun of Oakland, who placed second in the 1990 nationals. Cappelletto punches his chess clock, having used less than one of his 25 allotted minutes.
In the chair to Cappelletto's left, tournament leader Joe Edley of Riverhead, N.Y., is clearly ticked off. The wiry 43-year-old former national champion (1980) sits and fumes. His tight-lipped face could pass for John McEnroe's—just before the racket goes flying. He is upset not by his adversary across the board, nor by his own play, but by the fact that Cappelletto is sitting next to him.
"He's watching me," Edley says to Ed Halper, his opponent. "Let's move to another table."
"If you have a problem, you should've said something before we started," answers Halper. "I don't have a problem."
"The tournament hinges on our game and his game. He knows it. He shouldn't kibitz."
"Doesn't bother me," insists Halper.
Cappelletto is watching Edley. Perhaps even smirking. He seems oblivious to the fact that Schonbrun has answered SEVERELY with NONSUITS, for 78 points. Edley calls for a ruling on whether he may change tables once play has begun. As the tournament director approaches, Cappelletto glances at his own tiles to find PRIVILY, worth 54 points—and then turns to watch Edley.
Cappelletto has shaken Edley, and he knows it. The kid has been shaking veteran tournament players ever since he was 17, even though he was only 15 when he took up the game in 1985. Cappelletto has been talked of as the Bobby Fischer of Scrabble, one of the brightest young lights in the history of the game.
Scrabble was invented in 1931 when out-of-work architect Alfred M. Butts covered a checkerboard with a sheet of architectural grid paper. A fan of crosswords and cryptograms, Butts wanted to create a game that combined both. He cut 100 tiles from plywood, assigning particular letters and point values to each by calculating how often an individual letter appeared on a front page of The New York Times. With a 26-letter alphabet, 100 tiles and 225 squares upon which to play them, game possibilities were as diverse as snowflakes. Scrabble, Butts found, could be endlessly entertaining. More than 100 million Scrabble sets later, Butts's brainchild is still delighting players worldwide.