Playing With the Best

Me vs. Brian Cappelletto
Me vs. Brian Cappelletto

In the past two years, I have played in about a dozen Scrabble tournaments and have built my rating—as calculated by the National Scrabble Association—up to 1,606. (Novices are rated between 500 and 1,000; top experts around 2,000.) This means that I was eligible to play in any of the top three divisions in the national championship. (The tournament has seven divisions in all.) Playing in Division 2 or 3 would have meant greater success, but the opportunity to compete against the best players in the world was too good to pass up.

But while I was eager for some tough competition, my ideal opponent for the first game of my first national tournament was not former national champion Brian Cappelletto, seeded second out of 173 players in our group. In fact, in pre-tournament betting pools I’d picked him to win the whole thing. I was playing the biggest of the big dogs. I’m embarrassed to admit that my hands were shaking.

In a tournament game, each player has a total of 25 minutes to complete his moves, which are timed by a two-sided chess clock. It’s impossible to convey the many split-second considerations that go into each move a competitive Scrabble player makes, but let me try.

We drew tiles to determine who would start. It seemed auspicious that I drew an “A” while Brian drew “Z.” Then the defending national champion, Joel Sherman, stomped on an old Scrabble board, the ritual opening ceremony, and my first game—and 425 others—began.

I couldn’t have been happier to see a blank among the first seven letters I drew: DEEOPR? (The blank is represented by the question mark.) Having a blank all but guarantees a “bingo” within the first couple of plays—scoring a “bingo” or “bingoing” means using all of one’s tiles in a single turn for a 50-point bonus.

But then: I drew a blank—a mental one. Absolute panic. It was one of those nightmarish moments during which you think you won’t be able to perform a task you know damn well you can do. No words came to me.

So, I took a deep breath …

A sip of water …

And thankfully, I spotted PROcEED (the lower-case c represents the blank, as per Scrabble notation) and played it for 74 points. Had I not been so nervous, I would have seen REPOsED, or POwERED—which have the same value but are more sound strategically, because your opponent can’t add an “s.”

The game board vs. Brian, mid-match
The game board vs. Brian, mid-match

I had no time to gloat. Brian, in championship form, put down UNCLOTHE, ending on the first E in PROCEED, for 92 points. My rack was ADIJNTM, and, after considering several inferior options, I managed to spot and play ADJOINT, through the O in UNCLOTHE (in case you’re playing along at home), for 60. (This wouldn’t usually be a difficult word to find. But under the circumstances, I was surprised I remembered my own name.) We traded some plays back and forth: WORMS (30 points), FOIN (15), ZOA (28), and YIDS (32) for me; WEIGH (37), EARWORMS (39), AMOEBA (24), CLONIC (22), and AQUA (15) for him—and then I drew the second and last blank out of the bag, along with the letters FIILNT. I saw NIFTILy, and played it for 73 points, adding the N onto the bottom of OPE to make OPEN and sending NIFTILY niftily across the board.

But Brian rejoined with a big play—SNORERS, for 86. It put him in the lead 353-338, but I responded with GEY for 33 to go ahead 371-353. (I have no idea what GEY means, in case you are wondering. In fact, the meanings of the words are completely irrelevant to the game.) The remaining tiles were in my favor; I played a competent endgame, and thus: victory, 420-396!

I couldn’t believe it. This was just the first of 30 games—not an elimination tournament—with luck bound to even things out in the end, but still. Brian looked shocked.

I’d gotten lucky. The rest of the day proved it. Of eight games on Day 1, I won three, lost four, and tied one. The tie came in my match against Joel Wapnick, the 1999 world champion. I played well but in the end I did something remarkably stupid: Thinking I had the game wrapped up, I attempted a phony word in order to extend my margin of victory. But Joe called me on it and in the end we tied. Ugh!

Still, the day wasn’t so bad: I was ranked 107th out of 173, and I was unbeaten in two matches against world class opponents.