It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and the main room of the Asheville Senior Center is buzzing with conversation. People are walking in, carrying the cymbal bags that drummers use, greeting one another like they’re long lost friends.
No, it’s not a drumming circle, though that’s perhaps just as likely in Asheville.
This is the 2013 Asheville Scrabble Tournament, and it’s serious stuff.
Promptly at 9:00, tournament director Jacob Cohen steps up to a microphone at the front of the room. After a quick roll call, making sure every player has an opponent for the first round, he greets everyone.
“Welcome to Asheville! We have 74 players form 15 states,” Cohen tells the group. “Let’s give a special hand to the people who came from Minnesota! Wisconsin! Massachusetts! Louisiana!”
Cohen, a retired schoolteacher, says he would never have guessed he’d be in charge of a regional Scrabble tournament if you’d asked him three years ago. But now, he’s the guy driving the truck with the SCRABBL license plate. He says about a third of his time is spent on Scrabble, whether it’s playing, studying, or updating the Asheville club’s website.
On Cohen’s mark, the room goes silent except for the sound of tiles clinking in bags. The first of fourteen rounds has begun.
There are even silence enforcers, people who walk around with signs that remind people not to talk.
As Bill Snoddy puts it, “You really find people intensely playing a very competitive game. In fact, this has been called the contact mind sport because it’s so intense.”
In competitive Scrabble, players fall into five divisions.
Your placement is based on your previous scores in other tournaments.
When you start, you’re in division five. The more you play, the better you get.
During the lunch break, two women are sitting in the kitchen, playing a very different sort of Scrabble. They’re next to a hand-written sign that says “Division 6”.
These ladies, Carolyn Shorkey and Wendy Sokolow, are decked out in Scrabble-themed apparel—Shorkey’s got a Scrabble t-shirt, and her necklace is a “C” tile on a chain. Sockolow wears Scrabble tile earrings.
The two have been playing Scrabble together for 30 years, but they admit tournament Scrabble isn’t their thing.
“After the first game I played competitively,” Shorkey says, ‘I had post traumatic stress disorder. I just flattened myself in a standing position up against a wall with my hands up. I couldn’t move.”
Thus, division six. They call themselves the “drink wine and chat and play Scrabble” division. They’re happy to break official tournament rules, and Cohen is happy to have them. They helped set up tables and chairs for the tourney, after all.
And that’s the thing. Even the cheaters, even the ones who cringe at the thought of competitive Scrabble, are here, showing off their unbridled passion for the game.
“This is not your grandmother’s Scrabble,” says Snoddy. And he’s not kidding.
Official tournament Scrabble is not the mulling, meandering game you might play with your elderly relatives. It’s not a “chat-over-wine” division 6 scenario.
For one thing, it’s one-on-one. And it’s timed—players use clocks, just like in chess. Each person has a total of 25 minutes, so the games are always less than an hour.
The letter tiles are smooth, so you can’t rummage around in the bag to find a letter you need. (That’s called brailling, and it’s not allowed.)
Even the boards are different.
“We end up using these scrabble boards that have a grid,” Cohen says.
“If you remember, in the 1980s, they started making these ones with the plastic grids so the tiles don’t slip around. We also have our boards on turntables so it made sense to have something where the tiles don’t go flying off.”
The turntables are round, so there aren’t corners that could slam into your rack and spill your tiles. (That’s what the cymbal bags are for—turns out they’re the perfect size for tournament Scrabble boards.)
Michael Behrman is a division five player who only played one competitive game before he came from Charlotte to play in the tournament. At lunchtime, he’s 3 and 1, and feeling good. He prepared for his first tourney the same way most Scrabblers do.
“Oh, you’ll study the two-letter words,” Behrman says. “There are a 101 of those. So, I pretty much have those memorized. And there are a thousand three-letter words so, I don’t have those memorized.”
But, he says, he did study certain high-score words, ones that use 10-point Z’s or 8-point J’s.
Everyone seems to agree the best way to start studying for competitive Scrabble is to learn the two-letter words.
But from there, it’s possible to study for hours a day, from the highest probability seven-letter words to memorizing the Scrabble dictionary.
David Gibson is a division one player. Not only is he the top player at the Asheville tournament this year, he’s also the third-ranked player in North America, according to cross-tables.com, a massive Scrabble data website.
Gibson, whose day job is teaching college math in South Carolina, says he plays about eight tournaments a year. He drove to the Asheville tournament from his home in Spartanburg, SC, which he said took “about an hour and eight minutes.” (He’s a details guy.)
The night before the tournament, he showed me what he calls his Old Testament.
It’s battered and blue and was used so much it had to be re-bound, with a cover that says ‘David’s Lexicon’.
As he flips through the pages, there’s more blue ink in Gibson’s own handwriting than there are printed black words.
They’re his cryptic notes, lists of anagrams and similar words. He even has mnemonic devices to remember the anagrams to remember words he can play. It’s intense.
Gibson says there’s more to the game than just knowing weird words. There’s the luck of the draw, of course, but there’s also some serious strategy.
“You’re basically thinking about three things when you make a turn,” Gibson says.
“You think about, of course, how much you can score offensively. Your point total, number one.
“Number two, just as important, though, is what you keep. You try to basically keep the wheel of fortune letters, let’s call them. L, N, R, S, T and E. Those are the easiest letters that you can use to play our what we call our BINGOES with, get the fifty-point bonus. In other words, hit the home run.
“The third thing you keep in mind is your position on the board. I think of it as your defense. I try to cut down on what my opponent can do.”
During the games, of course, Gibson can’t use his Bible. But he takes notes on a piece of scrap paper next to him. He writes down what he played, how many points he got, and what letters he had when he made a certain play.
He also keeps a constant tally of all the letters played so that he knows what’s left on his opponent’s rack at the end of the game. Counting cards may be illegal in blackjack, but in Scrabble, it’s fair play.
On Sunday morning, halfway through the tournament, Gibson is in third, and he’s not sure if he can pull off the win.
At every break in the games, he’s going back over his plays, making sure he made the right choices, poring through his books while everyone else chats.
But after another long day, he pulls through.
When I congratulate him on the win, he shrugs, surprised he made it himself.
He doesn’t credit the hours of studying anagrams.
Instead, he digs through his letter tiles to show me a small coin.
It’s a Chinese Yuan, he says, which his wife bought for him.
“Any time it’s an interesting Scrabble word,” Gibson says, “whether it’s something at the grocery store or at a yard sale, she’ll buy it. So she bought me this Yuan, and I left it sitting beside me, and I kept winning, and she said, that’s a good luck charm. You’re taking that to the tournament in Asheville.”