War of the Words

Dallas' Scrabble geeks bring in the heavy artillery -- J, X, and Z -- for big bucks and glory

For all those years of battle, one war story stands out. The Scrabble board was tight, so tight. But after 10 minutes of tournament play, Michael Chitwood had his opponent right where he wanted her: stuck and grasping for a place to go.

No matter that the gray-haired woman across the board looked harmless--a little like his grandma. No matter that they often exchanged friendly tips about the game. This was mortal combat. Chitwood had shut down the board by playing short words, effectively blocking off most of the high-scoring spaces available to his opponent.

For the 52-year-old Dallas resident, winning this game was essential--and that sweet little lady squinting at the board was in the way.

After Chitwood made his move, Grandma studied the board, measuring the spaces, arranging and rearranging the seven tiles on her rack. This was her arsenal: all she had left to foil a complete rout.

She stopped and pulled out four letters. She placed them on the lone double-word score near an S. The word began with a C. It ended with a T and an S. It was an extremely vulgar word--plural, no less--for a woman's private parts.

"14 points!" she said, slapping the chess clock to stop the time.
She didn't blush; she didn't apologize. She fished for some more tiles from her bag and awaited her next turn. Despite her brilliant move, she would ultimately lose. But Chitwood couldn't help but admire her brass.

So much for the quiet, civil game of wordy recluses. In competitive Scrabble, foul words, slang, and even racial epithets are permissible and often used--because many of them contain high-scoring letters. "It doesn't matter to us," says Chitwood, a paralegal in real life. "If you've got the letters to play, and it's the best play you've got, you do it."

It is not unheard of for minority players to use words that would, in any other circumstance, cause fights, Chitwood adds. There is none of the posturing or recrimination that the words normally evoke. In the realm of Scrabble, words have lost their power to harm. Their potency is measured solely in points.

"They are just words to us," Chitwood says. "To us, the words are the rules."

At a time when there's a special place for obsessives of any stripe--you can find clubs for cat fanciers, Hawaiian shirt collectors, and speakers of the mythical language Klingon--it is not surprising that Scrabble has acquired its own culture in Dallas. It is, by its members' own admission, a quirky, eclectic, eccentric society of word freaks. People talk in terms of "rack leaves" and "bingos." They know that "mm" is a word, as is "qat," and that having the letters AEDIRST on the seven-letter rack is cause for great rejoicing. (The letters can be used to form the word "aridest," worth an extra 50 points because it uses all seven letters--what's known as a "bingo.")

Chitwood met Grandma and the likes of her through Dallas' growing network of Scrabble clubs. The players bring their own boards to coffee shops and restaurant back rooms, trying out the latest strategies learned over the Internet or through one of several national Scrabble magazines. (Scrabble News, published by the National Scrabble Association of Greenport, New York, is one of the most popular.) Players are from all walks of life: nurses, truck drivers, marketing directors, technical writers. Their paths met in the criss-crossing tiles of a Scrabble board.

"When I moved back to Dallas [from Houston], I had no friends," Chitwood recalls. "Through Scrabble, I have made a wide circle of them. I have no regrets about knowing any of them."

Most of these Scrabble enthusiasts will never go beyond club-level play--perfectly satisfied to learn the 92 two-letter words, like "ut" and "oe" and "xu," judged acceptable by the official Scrabble dictionary, or many of the threes, like "gox" and "kaf" and "gae." But for those who elevate Scrabble from game to sport--sport in the same way that synchronized swimming or chess are sports--there is more to it than simply knowing what words can be made. There is strategy: how to play short words to keep the board tight; how to recognize words in jumbled letters; how to use computer programs to increase one's Scrabble lexicon.

And now, there's even money. This week, the biannual Scrabble National Championship has been going on in downtown Dallas at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. More than 400 people from throughout the country and the world were expected to compete for a top prize of $25,000. It is the highest purse ever offered for a Scrabble national title, according to John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association.

The money makes possible something relatively new to the 65-year-old game invented by an unemployed architect: the professional Scrabble player. "We are just now getting to the point where someone could make a living," Williams says.

And that's a good thing, he adds, when oft-ignorant professional athletes get all the money and attention. "It will show a new generation that you don't have to be in the NBA to be good at something and get paid well for it," Williams says earnestly.

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