In a hushed hotel conference room, 40 people hunched over tables, the silence broken only by a murmured score and the gentle clicks of tiles. A scene, as one observer noted, “like watching people read.”
But don’t be fooled by the placid exterior of a competitive Scrabble tournament.
“It’s a sport, it’s true competition, it gets my adrenaline going,” said Lindsey Dimmick, who drove to 12 hours to Lexington to play in Bluegrass Scrabble’s annual Fall Classic, a three-day, nationally ranked competition. “Every time I put my hand in that bag to choose tiles, I’m gambling.”
Once a competitive athlete, Dimmick now gets her thrills traveling the Scrabble circuit, waiting for the moment when she gets a word like unequal on two triple word scores for 129 points.
Like many at the Fairfield Inn North on Sunday, Dimmick started playing with her family, but about nine years ago she tried competing and was hooked.
“The bug bit me, and now I go to as many tournaments as time and money will allow,” she said.
Christopher Vaccarello of Pittsburgh came to competitive Scrabble more recently but feels the same way.
“It’s almost like Christmas every time you reach into the bag for tiles,” he said. “The strategy has so much depth that you never get bored.”
His most recent favorite play was stardust. It got him only 61 points — not that many for Scrabble at this level —but “it’s a fun word,” he said.
Competitive Scrabble attracts word and math fans because of the strategy of placing words on the board where they will garner the most points, said Steve Bush, director of Bluegrass Scrabble.
“It’s an analytical game,” Bush said. “There’s a lot of analysis and probability.”
But part of that analysis is tied to the luck of the tiles a player will draw.
Competitive Scrabble is much different than the kitchen table variety. Players use a timer; each one has 25 minutes for the entire game but may take as long as they wish on each turn. Players have to keep up with the latest allowed words, like za, short for pizza, or the words of the Greek alphabet, which are allowed. The tiles are different, too, smooth plastic pieces, as opposed to the wooden tiles in most home sets, because an experienced player might be able to feel the letters in the bag. When players use all seven tiles on one word, it’s known as “bingo,” and they get an extra 50 points.
It’s almost like Christmas every time you reach into the bag for tiles.
Christopher Vaccarello, competitive Scrabble player
Players’ rankings are affected by every competition. Higher ranking players may advance to the North American Scrabble Players Association finals, held every summer.
Joey Krafchick, 20, has been playing in competitive Scrabble tournaments since he was 11, and now he’s one of the top-rated players in the country.
“It’s something to do on weekends,” the Kennesaw State University accounting major said of his trip from Georgia to Lexington, where he finished first. “It’s a challenging game, and I like the adrenaline of words and math.”
Jeff Clark of Linden, Mich., played in his first tournament in 1979. A retired General Motors engineer, he now spends his time as a volunteer firefighter who geocaches and plays poker, competitive backgammon and Scrabble.
“I’ve always liked games,” he said. “Competitive backgammon is faster-paced. Scrabble is slow and quiet.”