You Don’t Have To Know English To Play Scrabble

On the third day of the tournament, camera crews from ESPN and CBS came to film the action. Of course, the focus was not on me. It was on Trey Wright, a pianist from L.A., who had an amazing streak of 16 straight wins to take a lead of three full games over his closest competitor. Given the vagaries of luck involved in competitive Scrabble, a streak like his has very few precedents and even fewer reasonable explanations. It wasn’t a total fluke, though: Trey finished second in a previous national tournament, in 1998. Not too far behind Trey was 1994 champion David Gibson of South Carolina, who doesn’t play many tournaments but has won two of the biggest competition prizes: a $50,000 event roughly 10 years ago and last year’s Scrabble Masters event, also for 50 grand, which aired on ESPN.

The Thai contingent

Also competing in Division 1 were six Thai players. Scrabble is used as a tool for teaching English in schools in Thailand, and tournaments there regularly include more than 1,000 competitors. In last year’s world championship, in Kuala Lumpur, the best-of-five final was played between two young Thai men, Panupol Sujjayakorn and Pakorn Nemitrmansuk, who are 18 and 27 years old, respectively. At the end of Day 3, three of the six stood in the top 11—Pakorn, Charnwit Sukhumrattanaporn (who is 25), and Komol Panyasophonlert (19).

Panupol, Pakorn, and their countrymen illustrate one of the odd truths about Scrabble: It’s as much of a math game as it is a word game. Imagine that the 26 letters of the alphabet are 26 different colors. The colors are distributed in different amounts—there are 100 color pieces distributed in all, with some repetition—and certain combinations of colors, in certain orders, are acceptable, while others are not. For instance, if A = red, B = blue, and C = green, then GREENREDBLUE (i.e., CAB) would be acceptable, while no other combination of those colors would be. Many of the foreign players—most of whom are Thai—know minimal English (which speaks to the insufficiency of Scrabble as a teaching tool for linguistics). And while it’s true that having a large vocabulary is a good place to start if you want to be a good Scrabble player, at the highest levels it can also be an advantage not to speak English at all.

Let’s say I know that THOU is a four-letter word. If I don’t automatically know whether THOUED or THOUING are words, I would probably be able to guess because I understand how nouns and verbs function as parts of speech. THOUING and THOUED seem like they would be nonsense. But in fact they are acceptable: THOU can be a verb, meaning “to address as ‘thou.’ ” If I didn’t speak English, knowing the words THOU, THOUED, and THOUING would be as simple as memorizing three “words”—one of four letters, one of six letters, one of seven. But what you think of as “words,” the savvy Scrabbler knows to be “letter strings.” In other words, they are just combinations of letters. You wouldn’t have to know whether these “words” had any relation whatsoever to each other as parts of speech, and no word—CATCH, for instance—would look any more “normal,” or “reasonable,” than, say, CRWTH (which is actually acceptable). So it’s simple—as long as you know all the letter strings. The expert players do, and I don’t.

Another devastating endgame lost

On Day 3, one of my matches underscored how important it is to know these bizarre combinations. I was playing against Christina O’Sullivan, one of the few top division female players—there are 27 women out of 173 competitors—in the second to last game of the afternoon.

Early on, with a small lead, she played EUGENIZE for 91 points; my first reaction was, “Hey, wow, nice play.” I figured: EULOGIA and EULOGIZE are both good; EUGENIA and EUGENIC are, too, so why not EUGENIZE?

But then something clicked: I counted five vowels in her word. Most top players have memorized a list of eight-letter words that include five vowels. Some of these words are familiar—EQUATION, AUDIENCE, BEAUTIES, DIALOGUE—but most are bizarre—BOUZOUKI, WEIGELIA, IBOGAINE, BAUHINIA, etc. All are important, because a rack with five vowels is likely to offer few other scoring opportunities, so you don’t want to miss one of these big plays. I hate studying in general, but I know the five-vowel-eights, as they are called, because I (fortunately) lost a friend’s flashcards and was obliged to re-create them by hand—all 300 of them. I knew EUGENIZE was not on the five–vowel-eight list, so I challenged. The play, indeed, was ruled unacceptable.

Every game of Scrabble has a turning point, where the game is irrevocably lost or irreversibly won, and a good player knows where it is. This game was decided in a particularly fascinating endgame scenario, but EUGENIZE was the turning point. Not challenging Christina’s play would’ve lost me the game, even at such an early juncture; my tiles at the time were garbage, and the final E in EUGENIZE sat temptingly in the triple-triple line on the far right side of the board, but I was helpless to do anything with it.

I won that match, but Day 3 as a whole was only average: four up, four down. After 23 games, I stood 138th with a record of 9-13-1.