War of the Words

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

As if Wheaties is going to pay the big bucks to put a Scrabble player on its cereal box.

Darrell Day of Dallas longs for a certain word--this perfect, eight-letter fantasy that brilliantly incorporates the premium Z tile. If placed in the right spot on the Scrabble board, it would bring joy beyond measure. The word is "isozymic."

"If I could play that word, I could die a happier man," he says with a laugh.

Day, 39, is an expert-level player ranked among the top 50 on the continent. His standing is based on a chesslike system of wins and losses with other players of similar caliber. A rating of 1,700 ranks you as an expert. The highest-rated player on the continent, Joe Edley, has a 2,077 rating. Day's is 1,953.

Day is a blend of Midwestern friendliness and a singular intensity that characterizes the game's top players. Yet he finds peace on the Scrabble board. He speaks of "flow," of seeing the board as a whole and being able to "feel" the game. He has near-automatic recall of more than 100,000 Scrabble words culled from a computer list given to him by a "computer wonk in Colorado."

"Isozymic" is his dream. That he doesn't know exactly what it means is irrelevant. ("It has something to do with enzymes," he says.) What matters is if the word is placed on two triple-word scores (a square that triples the value of the word and landing on two of them makes the word worth nine times its face value) with the Z falling on a triple-letter score, he would receive 396 points in one swoop. It is the Scrabble equivalent of picking the Trifecta.

"It's beyond great," Day says. "It's off the charts."
For Chris Cree, winning at Scrabble is better than hauling in hundreds of thousands at blackjack tables. Cree, 41, owns a wholesale forklift company in Dallas. Last year, he was one of 54 high-ranked Scrabble players invited to Las Vegas for the first-ever Scrabble Superstars Showdown, where they rummaged through their tile bags for a $50,000 top prize. Cree, whose rating is 1,871, also loves to gamble, and spent his time between Scrabble matches at the casino. He won big.

One turn at the blackjack table won him $177,000; another $62,000. During the four days of the Scrabble tournament, Cree scored $250,000 from gambling. But his luck didn't translate to the Scrabble board. Blackjack made him late for the first round, and he got beat soundly. He went back to the gaming tables and won more. A pattern emerged: Win at blackjack, lose at Scrabble. Soon the top Scrabble prize was out of reach.

A year later, when asked the obvious, Cree has no regrets. "The tournament--I would rather have won the tournament," he drawls. He'd trade the $250,000 for a purse five times smaller, and a title few people have ever heard of. Why? "Glory," Cree says. "You don't get much glory looking at a pit boss."

Scrabble is a deceptive game. Most every American has played it, and it seems simple: All one needs is to know how to spell and perform rudimentary math. The rest--the finesse--comes with time.

Why play; why obsess? Scrabble freaks come up with a variety of reasons. They love words; they love puzzles. But they all gain some measure of satisfaction from knowing that Scrabble is knowable, like chess, but always different, subject to the vagaries of the tile bag.

"It is more fascinating than chess," says Day, who was a childhood chess prodigy. "With chess, the possibilities gradually decrease, and the game gets boring. With Scrabble, the possibilities increase--they become more and more infinite. No two games are ever alike. It's like a snowflake."

In the hands of experts, the game takes on all the intrigue of chess. "It is almost a test of wills," Day says. "When you have this laser focus, it's being in a zone."

Day has a bag of Scrabble "Protiles" with him. Protiles, used by tournament players, are made of molded plastic; so unlike the wooden ones from an ordinary Scrabble set, you can't feel the letters. He pulls seven out of the bag--G, A, O, L, E, R, and C--and begins to shuffle them around.

"Hmm," he says. "It doesn't make a bingo. The closest I could get is 'gaoler.' I don't know what it means."

He pauses. He says he would probably play off "ego" to leave a balance between vowels and consonants on his rack. Better letter balance means a better chance for a "bingo"--which brings big points.

"It took me a year to really learn how to play with words," Day says. "It was like learning another language."

In contrast to chess, chance is a significant factor in Scrabble. You are at the mercy of the tiles you pick randomly from the bag on each turn. (The Scrabbler's lament is "Oh, the tiles were against me.") So it is possible for a novice Scrabbler, with a bit of knowledge, to beat an expert. "It's an infinitesimal chance, but it's still a chance," Michael Chitwood says. "In chess, a novice couldn't beat an expert if the expert was awake."

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