Hanging on to every word: North American Scrabble champion crowned in Baltimore as the game transforms spectator sport | Way of life
BALTIMORE — Contemplative whispers gave way to a chorus of realization and screams as onlookers watched the action unfold. Several applauded. One announced: “I think we have a new champion, everyone.”
Orry Swift, the No. 2 ranked Scrabble player in North America, had put down the word “FER” and in doing so – as noticed by more than 100 viewers watching a live stream in an adjacent room – left room for opponent Michael Fagen to play “LEVIRATES”.
This latest game left Swift with her hand to her forehead and Fagen as the 2022 Scrabble Players’ Champion.
Backed by an avid Maryland state senator, Scrabble enthusiasts from 42 states and nine countries traveled to Baltimore last week for the North American Board Game Championships. The two finalists faced off in a best-of-five series on Wednesday at the Marriott Inner Harbor for a top prize of $10,000 and the bragging rights of being the best nerd on the continent.
Swift, a 35-year-old accounting professor at Lamar University in Texas and also a nationally ranked “Magic: The Gathering” card player, has spent about eight hours a day for the past month preparing for the tournament, study a list of over 100,000 approved words.
“It’s definitely Scrabble’s biggest event of the whole year, period,” he said.
Nearly 300 competitors, more than 31 matches per player
Democratic state Senator Cheryl Kagan of Montgomery County is an avid fan of the crossword-style board game in which contestants form words with individual letters. She plays daily online.
When she attended the 2019 North American Championship in Reno, Nevada, she lobbied the North American Scrabble Players Association leadership to bring the tournament to Maryland.
In coordination with Visit Baltimore, the association scheduled next year’s event in Baltimore, but it canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year nearly 300 contestants, who each paid a $200 entry fee, played the popular word game in Charm City.
Over the course of five days, competitors played at least 31 matches, which Kagan called “exhausting and exhilarating”.
The rules are the same as a casual game – in which players draw tiles with letters from a bag and then form words that fit into a crossword puzzle – with a few exceptions. These include that: competitors must lift the bag of letters above their line of sight when drawing; word challenges that may not be legitimate are checked using an official database on a laptop, not a dictionary; and each player gets 25 minutes of timed play per match.
After dozens of preliminary matches, the finalists battled it out for the title.
Fagen, 27, outscored Swift three games to one, winning the final game in exceptional fashion. With only seven tiles in each player’s possession per turn, using them all is a strong move. When such a “bingo” occurs, players not only get points for each letter they use, but a bonus for using all of their tiles. Creating an eight-letter word (by building a letter already on the board) is difficult, and creating a nine-letter word is so rare that players can play dozens of games without one.
Fagen played two nine-letter words, “COEQUATES” and “LEVIRATES”, in the match to clinch the championship. The latter means “the custom of marrying one’s brother’s widow”, according to Merriam-Webster’s online Scrabble Word Finder.
“I never thought I would reach the final,” said Fagen, the tournament’s 28th seed.
Shortly after his sensational victory at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Fagen had to catch a train at 5:30 p.m. When he bought his tickets, the prospect of competing for the title seemed so slim that he didn’t plan to play that late in the day. He really only thought about whether he could watch all the league games.
Fagen’s mother even suggested last month that he skip the tournament, after his direct flight from his native Montreal was cancelled. He told her that was not an option, especially after the event’s two-year hiatus, and booked a 10-hour ride on Greyhound to New York, followed by a three-hour train journey. hours to Baltimore.
He told his mother: “There is no alternative to this.”
“A beautiful microcosm of life”
Before the final match, Fagen wrote down everything he was playing for: “the trophy, the fame and the huge check”.
He took home the $10,000 grand prize while Swift, who said winning the championship was on her “bucket list,” took home $4,000 for second place.
Austin Shin, who won first place in a different division — one that used a larger wordlist — received $3,000. A pivotal moment in this title fight came when Shin’s opponent played “KYROLITE”, which is not legal, instead of “KRYOLITE”, an alternate spelling of the mineral cryolite.
It’s not about the money, however, as few competitors are profiting from the business. The appeal of the event lies more in competition, challenge and camaraderie. Much of the tournament felt like a reunion, not a rivalry.
“It’s like a braid, a beautiful tapestry, and it’s all together,” said Robin Pollock Daniel, a Toronto resident who competed for 35 years and remains one of the best players. “Untangling it in one aspect diminishes the other and I don’t want to do that. It is the totality. This is the gestalt of it.
Scrabble was invented in 1938, and by the late 1970s competitive play was gaining momentum. In 1980, Joe Edley won the second North American championship in history, and he did it again in 1992 and 2000. He flew this year from San Francisco to compete at age 74, placing fifth overall.
Along the way, Scrabble became a spectator sport, albeit with a limited audience. As Fagen and Swift battled in the final, more than 100 players watched the match feed – with two commentators and five camera angles – hooked on every word. A few hundred more watched the stream online.
While some in last week’s tournament are still playing relaxed matches elsewhere, for the ultra-competitive like Swift, that’s impossible. His rating is over 2000, ranking him among the best, and his gait is too premeditated to be compatible with a casual setting. His only opponents are other elite suitors.
“I don’t play with friends,” he says. “It’s not something you can do once you set foot in this room.”
The big competitors are also zealous. A high-level player, whose name begins with a J, wore a T-shirt with an image of a J tile on it. Another high-level player, whose name also begins with a J, had an image of the J tile tattooed on his shoulder.
Many have described the game’s challenge as its appeal; it’s up to the individual to make sense of a row of random letters. The fun is in the satisfaction, and there are countless lessons to be learned, several players said. Edley pointed out the parallels in life: you may not draw the tiles you hoped for, but what to do with them is up to you.
Says Pollock Daniel: “It’s such a beautiful microcosm of life, this game.”
Hearing Scrabble enthusiasts discuss strategy – something they often do, immediately after a game – is like hearing jargon about opening or closing the board, offensive or defensive play, and chatter about swings in probability. .
Although it’s a pun, Swift said it’s more mathematical than literary. He doesn’t read books for fun, but he studies words daily and has memorized thousands and thousands of words — he confidently played “GYTTJA” in the finale — without knowing their definitions. (In case you need to know, Scrabble Word Finder says it’s “organically rich slime.”)
“It’s intellectual,” Kagan said of the game, “it’s math, it’s logic, it’s strategy, it’s word knowledge, it’s anagram, and it’s chance.”
As the nearly week-long event drew to a close and prizes were awarded to winners in different categories, those gathered cheered to show their support for the winners of the game they love.
Two people, at the very back of the room, set up a board even as they celebrated the winners.
There was no more Scrabble to play.
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