War of the Words

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

But the folks who run Scrabble tournaments have tamed chance. They have somehow calculated that if you play more than 12 games of Scrabble, chance is a factor in winning only 25 percent of the time, John Williams says. Chess clocks limit each match to 50 minutes, and the average scores range from 400 to 500 points. The highest score recorded in an official match was 770 points, according to Everything Scrabble, the players' bible written by Williams and two-time national champ Joe Edley.

Those who walk into the gatherings of a Dallas Scrabble club thinking their record of wins with friends and family stand them in good stead are in for a rude shock. That's what happened when Chitwood went to the Mid-Cities Scrabble Club in Bedford six years ago "looking for some place that would exercise my mind."

Chitwood, a former long-distance trucker, was an avid Scrabbler from childhood. He got his first board at 10 and played with his brother. But playing with girls soon replaced playing with tiles. He says he was a bit cocky when he walked into the Heartland Retirement Center in Bedford for that first time, back in 1989. Chitwood thought he could make a reasonable showing. He didn't even come close.

His first match pitted him against an average club member. Chitwood lost. He kept losing for 27 consecutive games, which still remains as the club's record for losses.

"Right away I enjoyed it," Chitwood recalls. "I wanted to get to know how to get into the mind of the board."

He is now the top player in his own Scrabble group, the Scrabble Club of North Dallas, which meets Tuesday nights at Cafe Brazil in Richardson. Chitwood seems like the prototypical Scrabble geek: He speaks the language of "hooks," "premiums," "bingos," and "leaves." He wears Scrabble T-shirts. He carries a custom-made carryall from Mary Lou Thurman, a retired home-economics teacher from Lubbock who's become the game's Louis Vuitton, sewing together tile bags with custom embroidery and appliques. Chitwood plays Scrabble twice a week with people, and every day against his computer.

He even has a limited edition Franklin Mint Scrabble set--a fine piece of craftsmanship with a cherry-wood board and 18-carat gold-plated tiles. It holds a place of honor in the living room of his Garland home, amid bouquets of fake flowers, but he doesn't play it, because the tiles are like stones. "Digging around in the bag for those tiles would be like digging through rocks," he says. "It will take your nails off." The nearly $500 board was a present to himself, "to let people know exactly what I am into."

In the six years Chitwood has been playing Scrabble in tournaments, he's beaten enough people in NSA-sanctioned play to attain a rating of 1,592. It makes him a high-ranking intermediate, knocking on the door of expert level. His goal, of course, is to make Scrabble National Champion.

It won't be easy. To get to the expert level requires hours of memorization each day, with the goal of knowing the entire Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD). It will also require hours of playing against humans and computers, and hours of learning to pull a word from jumbles of letters. And most of all, it will require the patience and permission of "the Cherokee-Italian munchkin."

"She doesn't like me to spend too much time in Scrabble," Chitwood says of his wife.

Vickie Chitwood, 54, describes herself half-jokingly as a "Scrabble widow." She takes pains to ensure that her new husband doesn't descend too deeply into geekdom. "He loves it. I know that he does," she says. "My family doesn't understand it. I'm not sure I do."

Vickie got an insight into Chitwood's passion for the game on the couple's second date, when he invited her to a Scrabble club meeting at his house. Her two sons couldn't understand why their mother was dating a "Scrabble nerd."

"Mother," one said, "you don't play Scrabble."
"Yeah," said the other. "You're going to be bored out of your mind."
They looked at her in disbelief, wondering what their mother could possibly see in a thrice-divorced man who owned a gold-plated Scrabble set.

It turns out, quite a lot. Today, Vickie attends all of Chitwood's tournaments, though she still doesn't play. The two love to travel, and they've worked out a deal: She shops while he plays Scrabble. While he's absorbed in his matches, she can indulge her own obsession: buying Santa Claus statuettes and holiday trim. The two complement each other, like biscuits and gravy.

They spent their honeymoon, in fact, at a Scrabble tournament. And a good time was had by all.

"When I tell people that the honeymoon was tied to a Scrabble game, people look at me like I'm crazy," Vickie says. "But by the time the Scrabble started, we had done all the things we wanted to do."

Chitwood beams. Scrabble isn't his life, he's quick to point out. He likes to do other things: play golf, read books, umpire girls' softball. "I have a life outside Scrabble," he insists.

That's a mantra to Scrabble players, used to ward off the nerdish stereotypes. (Almost all of the players at the higher levels, incidentally, are men, although men and women are found in equal numbers at the local clubs.) "I want to make sure it is pointed out that we are not all that way," Chris Cree says.

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