There are 45 tables set up down in Exhibit Hall C of the Woodley Park Marriott in Washington, D.C., a hotel roughly the size of the Pentagon. Each table has a black tablecloth, a Diamond Anniversary Edition Scrabble board, a crushed velvet tile bag, two racks, four all-purpose banquet chairs (able to switch effortlessly between weddings and wheat lobbyist conferences), and a hard plastic digital game clock with two square blue buttons that make the thing look like a Soviet-era nuclear launch device.
Today, there are 89 pairs of children—all between fourth grade and eighth grade—competing in the 2013 National School Scrabble Championship. But they're not the only ones playing here, in this hall. Over in a corner, away from the frantic tile shuffling, there is a ninth grader named Andy Hoang who is playing a match of his own, with no one else around him. It's not like the other matches going on in this exhibit hall. In fact, it's just about the damnedest thing I've ever seen.
I started playing Scrabble when I was a kid. Like playing an instrument or speaking in a foreign language or swinging a golf club, Scrabble is one of those skills that's best learned at an early age. Kids can learn those things better than adults can. I have no idea why. Maybe it's because they have more free time. Maybe it's because they have more energy. Or maybe there's some plasticky part of the child brain that more readily takes in new information and then hardens after a certain age. Whatever the case, if you learn one of these skills while you're young, you tend to stay good at it.
My grandmother and grandfather taught me to play. They belonged to a pool club down in Florida. Like many pool clubs, this joint had a 15-minute adult-swim period every hour, which I thought was the greatest injustice in human history. Sometimes no adults went in the pool during adult swim, which was a total waste. To help me pass the time before I could go in the pool again, my grandma would whip out her Scrabble board—a weather-beaten old board with magnetic tiles and metal racks that had corroded after years of being used in the salty sea air—and teach me to play. She let me look up stuff. She let me re-play the blanks if I had the corresponding letter. She awarded 10- and 20-point bonuses for five- and six-letter words, respectively. And she let me drink all the virgin piña coladas I wanted.
There was no clock when I played with my grandparents. I would just shuffle the tiles around and constantly ask my grandma if SLARFED was a word, or if DOODING was a word. I learned about the word CUNT that way. I shuffled my tiles around, saw it there, and asked my grandma if that was a word. She burst out laughing.
"Oh, yes. But it's a very NAUGHTY word, my dear."
"Oh goodness, yes."
I looked it up in the dictionary and there it was, with the italicized disclaimer vulgar next to it. I played it, even though it didn't give me a great point total. But I never forgot that word. Whenever I see it now, I think of my grandma. It's very sweet.
I learned about all the weird two-letter words (XU, XI, KA, etc.) and all the weird Q words that didn't need a U (QOPH, QAID, etc.). Sometimes, I kept playing even after adult swim had ended. In the beginning my grandparents would help form words for me, even let me win. But soon, I didn't need help. I began beating them on my own. I always wanted to play again (especially after winning), but they'd usually had their fill by then. I would be really into the game, happy to play four or five times a day. I would replay the games in my head at night, smiling to myself at any seven-letter word I threw down on my grandma.
In that way, Scrabble is like any other kind of all-consuming game. If you've ever been bolted to a blackjack table for nine hours straight, or if you've ever spent an entire weekend playing Call of Duty, you know that certain games aren't so much addictive as they are magnetic. They exert a remarkable pull on your mind. You can get up to take a break, because you know you really ought to take a break, but you know, deep in your heart, that you never really want to stop. Ever. A recent MIT study of gamblers found that gamblers care more about playing the game than they do about winning or losing money:
“The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win,” Mollie told Schull. Instead, Mollie’s goal was to enter a state of total gambling immersion: “to keep playing — to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.”
That makes sense, when you think about it. If you really CARED about losing money, you'd stop. But gamblers don't stop because they just want to play. It's not losing that kills them. It's anything that gets in the way of their flow: a shuffle break, a slow player, a terrorist attack, etc. They abhor distractions.
There are some people on whom these games cast a momentary spell. I'm one of those kinds of people. When we would come home from my grandma's house, I'd forget all about Scrabble. I'd be more into stealing pornography or playing Mega Man 3 or whatever else happened to catch my attention at the time. I only got really pulled into the game a few times a year. But obviously, there are people—Scrabble players and chess players and poker players alike—for whom the spell lasts much longer. These are people who become obsessed. Permanently. You probably have an image in your mind of a kind of autistic hobo: brilliant and rumpled and talented and eccentric and brash at the table but shy away from it and definitely MALE. Probably not the greatest-smelling guy in the world. Those are the Bobby Fischers. The true obsessives. The people who never snap out of it. And players like that tend to be forged in the crucible of youth competitions like the one I went to last Friday.
That's the central conundrum facing the tournament organizers: How do you stage a tourney like this and avoid creating the sort of precociously competitive little monsters who populate youth chess tournaments and AYSO games, under the gaze of their similarly monstrous parents? How do you nurture genius like Andy Hoang's without warping it?
"We learned what not to do from the Spelling Bee," says John Williams. Williams is the executive director of the National Scrabble Association and one of the masterminds behind this tournament. He and his colleagues went to great lengths to dream up a competition that didn't parade individual kids up onto a stage to risk abject humiliation, the kind of pressure cooker that makes the Scripps National Spelling Bee both compelling and horrifying all at once. Hence, a team competition, where two teammates are free to openly strategize with each other (only when it's their turn, though. If you ain't on the clock, you zip it).
And the NSSC is also open to children of all skill levels. There are Scrabble prodigies in this hall, to be certain. But because the popularity of youth Scrabble is still relatively low (certainly compared with the Bee), there's also room for kids who are still learning the basic rules of the game. Some of refs here—they have zebra-striped shirts and everything—help the beginners out, and the kids can go past the clock if they feel like it.
When I walk into the hotel to find the exhibit hall where the tourney was happening (took me about three hours to figure it out), there are kids in homemade Scrabble team shirts (Sample motto: SERVING UP TILES AND SMILES) running up and down the hallways and sprinting up the down escalators, a move I still have the urge to pull at 36 years old. All the trappings of normal childhood are out in the open. The kids are so rambunctious, in fact, that they have to be shushed into silence before the second round begins in the main gaming room. John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, raises his voice to get everyone to shut up, just like a frustrated principal would.
"Quiet in the back, please!"
The kids settle down and Chew runs through a few items before play can resume.
"Make sure your results are checked by one of the officials. Also, when drawing tiles, PLEASE make sure the opening of your bag is at eye level or higher, so that you cannot see into the bag. If you see your opponent doing something wrong, please raise your hand and ask one of the officials, 'Is that OK?' If you need to, please raise your hand for an official to quiet people down."
Chew also notes that three-time national champion Joe Edley is in the house this afternoon. He will be conducting a free seminar called "Building Intuition," which probably could have benefited from a more exciting title.
"Also," Chew notes, "there will be an ice cream social this evening, featuring ice cream and more Scrabble! Now, you may begin playing."
At that announcement, I hear the clicking of three dozen tile bags being shaken simultaneously. The teams were very loosely pre-ranked coming into this competition to prevent mismatches. As the tourney advances through seven rounds, the highest scoring teams are moved to the lowest-numbered tables, while the novices get to compete against each other at the higher-numbered tables toward the back, like the lowest tier of friends and family at a big wedding. At Table 1, there is always a match between two top-rated teams. That match is simulcasted on the Internet, with two volunteers logging every move on their laptops and posting them for thousands of Scrabble fanboys following online, some "watching" from as far as Australia and Pakistan.
"You'll notice the difference in gameplay as we walk toward the front," Williams tells me as we stroll around the room, and he's right. Toward the back, there are more basic words. Shorter words (no c-bombs, though; curse words were struck from the home player's dictionary in 1996). And many of the boards are packed tightly, in a diagonal pattern, leaving whole regions of the board fallow and unavailable for play. This can happen with good players as well, but they're usually more adept at keeping the board loose and open. Which is good, because getting stuck with a tight board sucks.
Toward the front, I make out a lot of seven- and eight-letter bingos. Some of them are real, like THuNDERY—the lowercase letter denotes where a blank was used—and MINSTER (a large or important church). But others are phonies that go unchallenged, like PIMPERS (kudos to the kids who had the sack to throw that down), BINTERS, and ?ARAINS. That question mark denotes a blank. I have no clue what letter the blank is supposed to be, and I don't think the team playing it does either. You can challenge bullshit words like this by escorting your opponent over to one of the computer stations dotted throughout the room and entering the word into a program, which automatically spits out a curt, "No! The play is UNACCEPTABLE!" if the word is a phony. But if no one calls your bluff, it counts.
This can be a problem when experienced players are matched up with teams that aren't up to their skill level, Williams tells me. While not as cutthroat as other youth competitions, Williams says, there can be some occasional bullying at the NSSC. "These more experienced kids will sometimes just throw down eye charts, and the younger kids are too scared to call them on it," he says. Williams also recalled one talented all-boy team that went into brainlock against a team of two flirty eighth-grade lasses. Hard to think of a bingo when you've got puberty to contend with.
"We do have some stage parents. Not many," Williams says ruefully. And it's easy to see why. You can do your best to make your tournament inclusive. You can even include a sportsmanship award, as this event does. But some overzealous parents will still find a way to screw it all up. The NSSC does its best to marginalize their presence. Parents are allowed to watch the action only from a group of banquet chairs along the side of the room. They aren't allowed to raise their voices, and they most definitely aren't allowed to look over their kid's shoulder and be like, "Play ZIGGURAT or I will murder you." That would get you the gate.
But if you're a parent looking to indulge your inner micromanager, there are still plenty of opportunities for you to do so. Right outside the main playing hall is another room that has all the tourney results projected on a huge scrim. I took a blurry picture of it:
Trust me, it's just as overwhelming in person. You need cyborg eyes to process all of the information. After each round, the kids and parents come sprinting out to see how they're doing. Teams that have played their way into the top ten get a green square. Teams that haven't get a red square. It's not fun having a red square. "The board was really tight," I hear one kid lament to his mom. Another kid makes a hand puppet on the projection and giggles.
Back in the main hall, the games continue. Each team has 25 minutes to make all their moves, but the good teams are finishing up with plenty of time remaining on the clock. Williams walks with me and soon Chew joins us. Chew is also in charge of running the National Scrabble Championship, which is the big adult tournament. As you might have guessed, that is NOT a tourney that gets all niced down, like this one. This year, the adult tourney will be taking place in Vegas.
"Vegas LOVES the Scrabble players," Williams says. "Because the second they leave the tournament, they're at the tables." Williams recalled having to personally wrest a pro from the blackjack tables to get him back for a match on time. Chew tells me it's difficult for tourney organizers to settle on a hotel for the grownup tourney because Scrabble pros can be rather ... particular ... about their accommodations. Some (actually, many) want a cheap hotel. Some want a family-friendly hotel. Some want less gambling. Some want more. "These folks come to the tournament and are overwhelmed by all the people they see that love this one thing that they also love," Chew says. "But then they realize that Scrabble is the ONLY thing they have in common, and that's not enough."
It's my turn to play soon. My friend Stefan Fatsis has arranged for me to play the top-seeded team of Sam Masling and Thomas Draper. Fatsis is the best-selling author of Word Freak, and he is here today to coach his daughter, a fifth grader whose team is ranked third overall. Fatsis also coaches Masling and Draper, and he has assured me that they will beat my ass. "You're going to look like that Bear Grylls dude, except not just your ankle," he emails me before the tourney.
I could use a practice round before getting crushed by a seventh grader and an eighth grader, so I wander out of the main hall, looking for Fatsis so that we can play a practice match. But Fatsis is already locked in an unsanctioned battle against Andy Hoang. Hoang, a shy Vietnamese boy from Cary, N.C., was on the winning team last year. As a high school freshman, he has exhausted his eligibility, so he's here today as a coach for his two brothers. Later this year, he'll be in Vegas for the big boy tournament.
Hoang beats Fatsis by over 200 points, then quickly packs up the board and leaves the area.
I ask Fatsis for a warmup match but he declines. Taking Hoang's and Fatsis's place at the table are Edley and fellow Scrabble pro Brian Galebach.
"Watch them play to warm up," Fatsis says to me.
"I can only watch? That blows."
"Just watch and learn."
Edley and Galebach start off slow, with a closed-off diagonal board that looks a lot like the ones I saw at the high-numbered tables. Even bad tiles happen to good people. But after a few more turns, the bingos start raining down. Galebach puts down TENNISES.
"That's a legit word?" I ask.
"Pretty much all sports can be pluralized," Galebach says. "Even CURLINGS, which, as a curler, I find to be absurd."
It's Edley's turn now. He shows his rack to me, the tiles arranged in alphabetical order.
"Do you see the bingo?" he asks me.
I squint at his rack real hard. "Nope, I can't see it."
Three seconds later, he puts down BONFIRES.
"Do you play against any of the kids?" I ask Edley.
"Do you ever let them win?"
After watching Galebach and Edley trade a few more body blows, I head back into the main hall, where the third round of play is dying down. The recycled air in the hall is getting staler by the moment, and you can feel the place dragging.
And then, over in the corner, I see Andy, dressed like a businessman in a blue Oxford shirt, with blue trousers and shiny black shoes. He's all alone, hunched over a board by one of the promotional tables, near a framed rejection letter from the Milton Bradley company to Scrabble inventor Alfred Butts and three shockingly heavy trophies for first through third place. I see Andy meticulously arranging all of the tiles on the board.
"Are you playing yourself?" I ask.
"I'm just re-creating last year's finals," he says. He does not look up to talk to me. "Did you see me win? It was one of my most nerve-wracking matches."
"I didn't, I'm sorry to say. So, you memorized this?"
"This match and the 2009 Finals." Hoang's team won that tourney as well.
"Why did you memorize them?"
"I do it because it's fun. It reminds me of good times."
"So you can sort of recapture the memory?"
He shakes his head. "It's just fun."
"Did your parents teach you to play?"
"No, I learned in elementary school."
Andy finishes off the board and tears off two pieces of scrap paper. On one scrap, he writes:
ANDY HOANG + ERIK SALGADO
On the other:
NICKY VASQUEZ + THOMAS DRAPER
He props the two little scraps of paper up on the board and then runs off, leaving it there. He's like Banksy fleeing the scene after painting something incredible on the side of bridge. I stand in front of the board, jaw agape. And then I do what I imagine Andy intended for me to do: I point out his masterpiece to other people.
"Did you see this?" I ask one of the officials.
"What is it?"
"Andy memorized last year's final."
"No, he didn't. OH MY GOODNESS." She stares at the board in shock.
At the other end of the room, Andy joins up with his brothers and his father, a slender man named Danny who emigrated from Vietnam when he was 13 years old. I ask Danny what it's like to watch his kids play in the tourney.
"Very intense," he says. "I stay away." He holds up both hands and makes a pushing motion. He can see the intensity in his children's eyes when they play, and he doesn't want to break it.
It's my turn now. The third round is over and the tournament won't resume again until the morning. At around 5:30 p.m., the top-ranked team of Masling and Draper come to Table 1 for our little exhibition match. Sam is an eighth grader from nearby Friendship Heights. Thomas, who lost to Andy in the final last year, is a seventh grader from New Jersey. Fatsis tells me that I'll be playing them as a team.
"How come I don't get a teammate?" I ask.
"That's just how it is," Fatsis says.
"Oh, this is crap. I'm gonna get murdered."
The two boys have a laugh at my complaints. Frankly, I'm in a no-win situation. If I lose, I'm a loser. If I win, I'm the heartless bastard who beat two middle schoolers. Sam's mother agrees with my assessment.
"Oh, you have to lose," she says, laughing.
"I know, I know."
But then we draw tiles and I find that I have a bingo right at the start: FlOWERS. I put it down and suddenly I have an 82-0 lead. Then I draw the Q and the Z simultaneously and put down QUIZ to take a 124-24 lead. I'm crushing it. I'm killing it. I am killcrushslaying these kids. I have no interest in decorum anymore. The game has me. I want to win because I want to win.
And then it all goes to shit. Sam and Thomas play two phonies—ADJEcT and BEBES—and I'm too cowardly to challenge them. THEY PLAYED DIRTY! I'm such a moron, I try to educate them on a word that I don't even know is fake.
"I don't think you can pluralize ADJECT," I say to Sam.
"Yeah, probably not."
"But you CAN add -IVE. That makes ADJECTIVE, you know!"
Turn by turn, they eat into my cushion. I find I have seven-letter words but nowhere to put them, which makes me want to die. I lay down stupid four-letter words like YOUR and DORK. Finally, the kids put down NIDATES ("to become implanted in the uterus") for 70 points and I'm done for good. I choke like a Washington Capital and lose by more than 60 points.
But neither Thomas nor Sam is the type to gloat. They thank me for the game and skip off to go be wonderfully regular middle schoolers for the rest of the evening. The next day, with the remaining 87 teams watching, they will lose in the finals to the team of Raymond Gao and Kevin Bowerman, the game turning on a cheap ZA and a phony bingo (ELOPEEs) that Thomas and Sam fail to challenge. If only they had ADJECTED it. By losing in the finals, Thomas and Sam miss out on a $10,000 grand prize and a chance to play against Jimmy Kimmel on national television.
Thomas and Sam and Kevin and Raymond are all good enough to compete with the grownups, and perhaps they'll beat them one day. But to become adult champions, to compete with the Joe Edleys of the world, they may have to jettison the majority of their other interests. They may have to give into the game, to let Scrabble fully colonize their minds. And who knows if that's something they or their parents want. Maybe the parents like their children to be more "normal."
The tournament is wrestling with a central paradox of being a parent. You want your kids to be extraordinary, but not so extraordinary that they feel as if they have no place in the world. You want them to fit in. You want them to be normal, although who the hell knows what normal really is, or if it even exists.
Every parent wants his or her kid to be great at something. That's only natural. But it's also natural to read Word Freak and hear John Williams talk about the assorted cast of rogues who populate the grownup tournament and worry that your kid will love Scrabble TOO much, that they'll end up consumed by a game, one day fleeing to Iceland and writing anti-Semitic screeds on rolls of toilet paper. I ask Fatsis, who has spent a great deal of the day stressing to me how normal these kids are, if he's worried that his daughter will like the game too much.
"No," he says. "I don't even know what 'too much' means in the life of a well-rounded kid with lots of options and responsible parents. An hour or two a day studying words and playing Scrabble? Fine by me. There aren't that many things at which a kid can be truly great, when compared just to other kids or to adults, too. So why not be great at this? Why not learn to love language, stretch your brain, solve a puzzle every couple minutes, strive to win, learn to lose—and kick the occasional adult butt in the process?"
When I get home, I tell my 7-year-old that I played (and lost) a game of Scrabble to a couple of middle-school kids.
"Can I play?" she asks.
"Sure," I say.
Then I bust out the board and see where the game takes us.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also order Drew's new book, Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.