The day following my first first-place win in a Scrabble tournament, I bought a personal pan za to fill my wame as well as my qi.
Welcome to the cryptic world of Scrabble, where serious players, myself included, play with words we don’t use in daily life. I order pizza, not za. I fill my belly, not my wame. And I say “spirit,” not “qi.”
Even before my first tourney in 2010, I had memorized the 101 two-letter words and the 1,015 three-letter words contained in the 2006 Official Tournament and Club Word List.
With this arsenal of words added to goodness how many thousands of words I had acquired since first playing the word game in the Philippines as a teen, I drove to Philadelphia to compete in my first tournament.
I played in the novice division—i.e., players with ratings of 1,000 and below —and was seeded last of 14 players. I won four of seven games and wound up no. 4 in the division with a rating of 915. I was hooked.
What drives me and the 4,800+ other tournament players registered in the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA) to devote a big chunk of our lives memorizing obscure words as well as going to tournaments far and near? Why do we spend a tidy sum on entry fees; car, train and plane rides; and hotels and meals? Why do we splurge on personalized Scrabble boards and special Scrabble bags with wheels to lug our cumbersome equipment from tourney to tourney?
It’s obvious we love playing words. We also love the game’s mix of skill and luck. We love the high-mindedness of the game, the honor and the fairness among the players. We love to win, although any true lover of Scrabble will tell you it isn’t because the prize money will make us rich. This isn’t chess.
The truth is, Scrabble is a passion. I am speaking unreservedly for all regular Scrabble tournament players in North America, in the Philippines and all over the world: we are passionately involved in Scrabble, a passion we cannot deny.
Alfred Butts could not have imagined that Lexicon, the little word game he invented to support himself during the Depression, would, in its final form as Scrabble, become so addictive. In 1949 he sold 2,413 Scrabble sets. In 1954, the game exploded worldwide. He sold 2.5 million sets and an additional 100,000 foreign-language versions.
I have vivid memories of playing innumerable games with the neighborhood girls in 1955 or thereabouts. We played on a Scrabble board owned by the late journalist Minnie Montemayor Narciso. I like to think that Minnie and I became journalists because we played Scrabble early in our lives.
After I graduated high school from St. Theresa’s College in Quezon City, I made Scrabble a now-and-then pastime, not to be taken seriously again until I retired in 2006. But when I did, the game all but took over half of my days, to my husband David’s contained dismay. He didn’t protest because it was he who gave me my life-changing Christmas gift: a Scrabble CD that I could play on the computer. Day in and day out I untiringly played against a robot, aptly called Maven.
In 2007, while in the Philippines to attend my 50th-anniversary high school reunion, I chanced upon freelance journalist Bibsy Carballo. I had not seen her since immigrating to America in 1981, but I recognized her immediately. It turned out Bibsy played Scrabble weekly in a restaurant near Malate Church. I joined her in three Thursday-evening sessions. Each time, I crawled through 5:30 p.m. traffic from Quezon City to Malate just to play three games. This was when I realized the game for me had become more than just a passing fancy. It had become an obsession.
Back in Pennsylvania, I discovered Pogo, an online game site where I could play real people, even chat with them 24/7 if I so desired. One of the women I played on the site invited me to join her Scrabble club, which is affiliated with NASPA. I did. Each Tuesday for the last three years, I have been driving 44 miles to the club in Dover, PA, in order to play five games.
In the last three years, I’ve joined 19 tournaments held in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. I’ve won two first-prizes and one third prize in my division—$275 total—but have spent at least 10 times that much.
If this isn’t passion, I don’t know what is. And the physical manifestations are the same, whether the source of passion is a person, an idea—or Scrabble. To show you what I mean, let me recount the final moments of the last game in my most recent tournament (held April 21 in Philadelphia).
I see a seven-letter word on my rack— “slaters”—and find a place for it on the board. My heart starts pounding. My cheeks become flushed. I can hardly breathe while my opponent, Willie Kota, takes his turn. He doesn’t block my play and I’m in the clear. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I scream inside me as I plunk down my bingo (the use of all seven letters on a rack to score an additional 50 points).
After another bingo and three high-scoring turns, I am ahead by 78 points. There are three tiles left in the bag and seven in each of our racks. It’s my turn to play, so I block one of two bingo lanes, hoping he will not be able to use the other one. But he does. He plays “reunite,” hooking the ’r” to the word “wage” to form “wager,” and the last “e” to “l” to form the word “el.”
Our final score is 384-383. I lose by one point. What a coup for him. “Let’s have our photo taken,” Willie says. He is proud of that moment, and rightly so. I faked a smile,
To get rid of my frustration, I focus on my next tournament. It will be on July 3-7 in Albany, NY, about seven hours’ drive away. Now that will be a long, wild encounter: 29 games held over five days. I can hardly wait.