Scrabblers Meet in Orlando for the National Title
By Peter Schwartzman
Every year or two since 1978, Scrabbleñ players from around the world have convened on U.S. soil to see who is the best at forming words and controlling the multi-colored board. This year the setting was Orlando, Florida, where 662 players shook bags and drew tiles for twenty-eight one-on-one games to decide the champion. Win the most games over that span and you become the U.S. National Champion and win the $25,000 top prize.
Actually, only 103 were playing for this coveted prize, as only those with ratings above 1750 qualify for Division I; the remaining players compete in five lower divisions (each of which crown their own champion of sorts). This year, Division IÕs field was stacked with fourteen of the top twenty rated players, and thirty-eight of the top fifty. Additionally, many of the best international players brought their talents to showcase, including six players from Asia and eight from Canada.
Day 1 (and the first seven games) was dominated by Matt Graham, a writer from New York City, who won all his games by an average score of 103 points. (Matt is well-known for taking a broad range of (legal) mind-enhancing drugs during tournaments as depicted in the award-winning documentary film on the Scrabbleñ community, Word Wars.) Four players finished 6-1 for the day. Day 2 was another story. Brian Capelletto, a former national as well world champion, swept his games and ended 12-2, +908 (the latter number referring to his spread, or net score difference in all his games); Nigel Richards, the highest rated player coming in, lurked just one game behind at 11-3. Day 3 was rather uneventful with Brian maintaining his one game lead on Nigel. One long time player hailing from Keego Harbor, Michigan, Paul Epstein, delighted all the underdogs by sneaking into 4th place with some outstanding play.
Day 4 (and the last 7 games) was primed to be a battle. Brian started off well beating Epstein 491 to 392. But Nigel wasnÕt going to let Brian farther ahead as he went on to win his first three games. With three games remaining, it was clearly a two man race, Brian still up one game on Nigel. This situation set the stage for one of the greatest final three rounds in the tournamentÕs history. Brian and Nigel were set to play each other three games in a row. Game 26 saw Nigel besting Brian 458 to 371 with Nigel playing three bingos—plays that require a player to use all 7 tiles on his/her rack and receive a 50 point bonus—ANTIMERE, TRITONES, and LEVYING. Now they were tied for wins. Game 27 witnessed Nigel winning again, this time by only 47 points. In this game, Brian tried SULPHITIC (a marvelous 9-letter construction) that just doesnÕt happen to be a legitimate word; SULFITIC is good but apparently the British form isnÕt. Nigel knew this and challenged it off the board, gaining an extra turn in the process. So, entering game 28, Nigel was up by one win. Yet, as fate would have it, it all came down to the final game. Despite having just beaten Brian in two straight games, Nigel would have to beat Brian a third time in a row in order to become the first non-North American to win the U.S. National Championship.
Brian got to go first. On play three, he got the gameÕs first bingo down—SERRYING for 63 points. On play 5, he got to play another bingo—SARCINA for 70 points—taking a commanding 191 to 94 lead. But, Nigel, once again, wasnÕt flying back to Asia so quickly. He responded immediately with INNERVE, hooking an E to the end of SARCINA. A dazzling 98 point play and he took the lead by one, 192 to 191. With what will go down in Scrabble¨ annals as the most dramatic final game ever, Brian played BATHER for 42 points to tie the score at 370. He then had to draw 6 tiles from a bag containing only 7. After drawing these 6, would you believe his final tiles on his rack end up being: AAAEIUU? All Scrabblers have had nightmares like this, but, unfortunately this one was real and Brian couldnÕt overcome his vowel-laden riches. In the end, Nigel won the final game 412 to 401. A New Zealander, currently living in Malaysia, is the 2008 U.S. National Scrabbleñ Champion! Congrats.
Difficult as it was not to attend this year, at least the National Scrabbleñ Association kept me captivated by updates posted on their website (www.scrabble-assoc.com). Nightly conversations with my mom, who was participating, also helped fuel my enthusiasm. For those that havenÕt noticed, I try to contribute a puzzle (entitled, Word Nerd Corner) in every issue of The Zephyr. Feel free to attempt these challenging word puzzles and if you ever get an itching to try your skill at the game, go to www.cross-tables.com, a website where you can find out who is playing where and when in the Scrabble‰ world.