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Welcome to the Snake pit 

Better mind your p's and q's at a professional Scrabble tourney

In an otherwise silent hotel conference room, 5,100 plastic tiles jiggling in 51 Scrabble pouches sounds like a whole lot of irritated rattlers. I should have known better than to talk, but I needed clarification on a Scrabble term I had just overheard: volatile opening (which, surprisingly, is not an orifice on the human body). The collective shushing of 102 irritated Scrabble players sounds like hissing cobras.

Zooecia: a sac or chamber secreted and lived in by a bryozoan zooid

Charlotte's second nationally sanctioned tournament has brought in stars like the fresh-faced Joey Mallick of Maine, the highest nationally ranked player in attendance at No. 9, and GI Joel Sherman of New York (GI as in gastrointestinal; he often keeps a bottle of Maalox next to his tile rack for easy access), who at No. 26 is arguably the biggest Scrabble celebrity in the world. Featured in the Scrabble documentary Word Wars, GI Joel wears the glower of a grouper and red suspenders to hold up his oversized khakis. For some reason he's dressed for catching pies in his pants. Joel quit his banking job 18 years ago to become a pro in a sport where there isn't enough prize money to go around. First place here takes $1,000. The grand prize for the national championship shown on ESPN is only $25,000.

Padroni: Men who exploitatively employ or find work for Italian immigrants in America

"With travel and hotel expenses it's very uncommon to come out of a tournament ahead," says No. 11, Charlotte's own John Luebkemann. John is a member of Charlotte's Scrabble Club, which meets Thursday nights at Barnes & Noble on Sharon Road. Only first-, second- and third-place winners take home prize money, and only first and second come out ahead, given travel and lodging expenses. John tells me the highest play he's ever seen, rorquals. The word spanned two triple-word spots (which is what a real volatile opening is) and the q was on a double letter.

"That got a buttload of points," John says. (A buttload equals 293.)

Rorqual: any of a family of large baleen whales having the skin of the throat marked with deep longitudinal furrows

Randy Hersom (No. 31), a gentle giant with a wide smile, has driven down from Morganton. Randy doesn't shake up the tiles without his cooler stacked with Diet Pepsis. Last year at the nationals, he downed 15 sodas along with six cups of coffee. In his shirt pocket, Randy, like about a third of the expert players, keeps a special Scrabble Palm Pilot. After games, he enters his various racks into the computer to see if he missed any plays. The machine also holds the OSPD4 (Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, 4th edition). A computer programmer by day, Randy created his own program to help him study letter clusters arranged in alphabetical order called alphagrams.

What's there to do after a full day of Scrabble? More Scrabble, of course. Players will flex their range of word-game skills at after-hours sessions playing anagrams and devious variations of Scrabble like Clabbers, a game in which you can play any letter order as long as it can be jumbled into a real word. Charlotte has been "unusually light on the late-night action," Randy says.

Uraei: a representation of the sacred asp appearing in ancient Egyptian art, especially on the headresses of rulers

No. 161, Ted Rosen, shies away from eye contact and leaves conversations without the typical valedictions. In the hallway, speaking a mile a minute, he tells me his best Scrabble moment. "I was in penalty time and I bingoed out with eardrum, overlapping five letters in a word for about 85, 90 points. I had a minute, 52 seconds in penalty time; another eight seconds and I would have gotten 10 more points deducted from the time penalty and I would have lost by one point instead of winning by nine. After that game, I went to a restroom bathroom and cried. I still do a little bit when I think about it."

Retiary: of, resembling or forming a net

Tournament director Wendell Smith has done it with his wife in Russia, Norway and Japan. In a plane. On a train. On a bus. In international waters. In every continent minus Antarctica. He even tried it on a camel in Morocco until he got too seasick and had to quit. "It" being Scrabble, of course.

Wendell also runs the national championships, which essentially means he stops the cheaters. He's caught players hiding tiles and quickly looking up a second word on the challenge computer. In the nationals, an angry mob accused a women in a wheelchair of looking into the tile bag. (She had to use the tile bag held below eye level because of her condition.) Although Wendell thought the complainers were being sore losers, he found another bag deeper than a pillow case for her to use. The toughest conflict he's ever mediated was when a blind player drew a deaf player. Each player thought the other was unfairly benefiting from their assistant.

Holpen: a past participle of help

The biggest debate in the Scrabble world used to be about the use of slurs and swears. Purists believe words like wop and fuck should be in, but those words aren't allowed in school Scrabble or in the national championships broadcast on TV. No. 1 ranked David Gibson used the word lez (short for lesbian) in a tournament last year. ESPN had to shut down the cameras and warn Gibson. Yet tup (to copulate with a sheep) is legal. Wendell doesn't understand the prudes: "Get over it. Go play bocce ball."

Now that debate is ancient. Starting March 1, the Scrabble world as we know it will change. A total of 3,000 new words will be introduced including qi (the Chinese life source). This is big. This is like legalizing jet packs in basketball to allow 5-foot players to dunk. Never before has it been possible to get rid of the worst letter in the bag without the accompanying u.

"It completely changes the game," says Wendell. "It makes it much easier."

Suq: a marketplace in Northern Africa or the Middle East

Randy must win the 15th and final game to win Charlotte's tournament. If he loses, Joel Sherman has a chance to take it. Randy draws seven letters and instantly rearranges his rack to spell garrote. On the next turn he finds the opening and plays his bingo, pulling well into the lead and effectively choking out any hope that Joel could win.

Garrote: an implement (as a wire with a handle at each end) for strangulation

(Note: All words defined in italics were seen on the Scrabble board except for the high-scoring term rorquals.)

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