War of the Words

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

Cree has a life. He loves sports and gambling. But pursuing a life outside of Scrabble won't work for aspiring champions; Cree knows firsthand. During the last few years, his ranking has dropped off. He used to be in the top 10; now he's in the bottom half of the top 100. "I don't study as much," he says. "There are people who study eight hours a day--who are on the Internet all night about nothing but Scrabble--and they have passed me. I'm in the twilight of my career. I'm 41 and I'm finished," he adds, laughing.

His life has revolved increasingly around his 8-year-old daughter, Kendall. But Cree still hoped to make a comeback in nationals in this week's Dallas tournament, which is open to any ranked Scrabble player who has played at least one officially sanctioned Scrabble tournament in the past two years. The entry fee is $75 for experts, $60 for intermediates, and $50 for novices.

Cree started playing Scrabble competitively in 1980 at the Scrabble Club of Dallas, which meets at the Shoney's on Northwest Highway. He threw himself into it, and found he excelled. Today, he possesses the attributes of a champion. He knows all the two- and three-letter words in the OSPD, most of the fours and fives, and a pretty good quotient of the sevens and eights. He can move letters around mentally on the rack. "If I see 'bean soup,' I know I have 'subpoena,'" he says. "'Moonies' is 'noisome.'"

Darrell Day took up Scrabble 15 years ago, after picking up a used copy of The Official Scrabble Player's Handbook. It was Cree, whom Day met through Scrabble tournaments, who convinced him to move from Kansas to Dallas. "He said the economy was booming, there were beautiful women, and good Scrabble," Day says.

Day admits he used to be the "bad boy" of Scrabble, an insufferable loser who would chomp and curse when the tiles didn't fall his way. He knew the tricks, too, like how to play "phoney." The nonword "ceebeam" won him a tournament in Texas a few years ago, he says. Phonies are fake words, and players use them to score points and to test their opponents' knowledge.

Day's Scrabble buddies helped him through a messy divorce. Concentrating on the game kept him sane when things were falling apart, he says.

These days, Day is more relaxed about the game. The ultimate titles--national and world championships, both played in English--have eluded him. He has come close, however, getting as high as fifth in the nation and twelfth in the world. He was tense back then.

Now his divorce is over, a new relationship is settling in, and he's gotten his priorities straight. He spends more time with his children, and he's able to get in a Scrabble groove when he finds time to play.

"Finally, after almost 15 years of playing, I finally feel the rhythm of the game, no matter how it's going," he says. "It's like the Chicago Bulls. They didn't have a lot of talent, but what they had was balance and chemistry."

This Zenlike talk doesn't mean Day has lost his taste for winning. "I'm still a competitive S.O.B.," he says.

It's Tuesday night in the back room of Richardson's Cafe Brazil, and only a few of the 16 regulars of the Scrabble Club of North Dallas have shown up to eat, drink coffee, and play. There isn't much chatter; just the occasional gripe about a suspicious word.

There's Joy Nees, a Dallas real-estate agent, playing Seymour Zweigorom, a retired manager. Nees has a cellular phone stuck to her ear as she plays, setting up meetings and cajoling reluctant buyers while placing tiles. "I don't normally do this," she says in her clipped New Zealand accent. "They usually know not to bother me on Tuesdays."

Usually seven or eight show up, but Chitwood isn't worried by the small showing. Four people means three games of Scrabble apiece. "I'm sure the rest of them are off having a life," he says.

His first partner is LeAnne Baird, a technical writer. She is a round woman--pale, with a cherubic face, brown hair, and glasses. She describes herself as a word lover.

But word lovers are the first to die in serious Scrabble. And Chitwood shows Baird no mercy. He lays down his tiles in a rapid-fire barrage. "Comping" for 28 points. He writes down the word and score, ticks off the letters used on his score sheet, and scoops up new tiles. Baird places "vugs" for 12. Chitwood shoots back with "blitzes," a 97-point scorcher. It leaves Baird in a metaphorical fog. When it settles, Chitwood has 448 points for the game. And Baird? Neither is telling.

Chitwood then goes back and analyzes what he has done. He sees a place where he could have played "squeaky" for a double-word score and lots of points.

For Baird, Scrabble is just a hobby. She cares too much about the meanings of words. She's too literary. The game's dirty secret is that people like Baird will never make it anywhere near the top. Competitive Scrabble discourages knowing words in the usual sense--context, meaning, history. Instead, it encourages players to look at words like commodities, brokered on the board.

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