In a word, the Scrabble games in San Diego are cutthroat

Thursday, August 22, 2002

By Ben Fox ~ The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO -- Nigel Richardson used obscure words such as genros, awee, and butut to beat his opponent in a tense game of Scrabble. Just don't ask him for the definitions.

A 35-year-old champion of the board game in his native New Zealand, Richardson doesn't really care what the words mean. "Meaning is a luxury," he said.

His opponent, a college student from Bangkok, doesn't even speak English.

The two were among 700 die-hard fans from eight countries and 40 state competing this week in a ballroom in downtown San Diego for the National Scrabble Championship. They play 31 games over five days. The player with the best record when the tournament ends Thursday receives $25,000.

"This isn't your grandmother's Scrabble. This is cutthroat," said John D. Williams, executive director of the 10,000-member National Scrabble Association, based in Greenport, N.Y., which sponsors the competition every other year.

70 years of play

The game, invented in the 1930s by an out-of-work architect named Alfred M. Butts, involves selecting letters from a bag and forming words on a board, tallying the score based on the value of each letter and earning bonus points from certain spots on the board.

Most players would be thrilled to hit 200 points.

Barbara Besadny, 70, scored 112 points in just one turn with "deglazes."

"They always joke about the blue-haired ladies, but they shouldn't because a lot of those ladies are good," said Besadny, a retiree from Madison, Wis.

Nearly all contestants have one thing in common: Casual games are no longer an option.

"I get talked into a playing a kitchen table game about every two years, and I always end up swearing I'll never do it again," says Robert Felt, 49, of Atlanta, a former champion. "It's like I'm Andre Agassi and my neighbor wants to play a friendly game of tennis. It's just not fun."

All words must be in English. But that doesn't rule out entries such as xi, a Greek letter; puja, a Hindu prayer ritual; or qoph, a letter in the Hebrew alphabet.

In cases where one player challenges another, the final arbiter is the Scrabble dictionary, which has long lists of words but only a few definitions.

The book includes Richards' winning entries: Genros is a group of elder statesmen in Japan. Butut is a monetary unit in Gambia. Awee is an adverb meaning awhile.

Richards, who works as an engineer in Malaysia, shrugs off the definitions.

"How am I going to use a word like 'awee' in a sentence? If I do, the person I'm talking to won't know it so what's the point?" he asks.

The point was to beat his opponent, Panupol Sujjayakorn of Thailand, which he did by a score of 458 to 328. Despite the loss, and his inability to speak English, the 17-year-old is one of about two dozen considered to have a serious shot at winning the tournament.

Inside ballroom during play, the room is silent except for the whispers of judges and the clink of letters being fished from a bag between turns.

Players rarely speak and use chess clocks to ration the 25 minutes each contestant is allowed per match.

Contestants in six divisions play tournament games from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., checking their rankings on bulletin boards between rounds. Many stay up until midnight -- playing Scrabble for fun in their hotel rooms.

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