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Our Food Critic Didn't Cover the National Scrabble Championship. She Went to Compete.

Here's an admission that should humiliate me as a food writer and a Scrabble player: I can't spell "strudel."

I had the seven-letter word on my rack during the first day of play at the National Scrabble Championships in Addison this weekend, but -- unsure whether the word looked sufficiently Germanic without an extra "e" before the "u" - declined to play it. The decision cost me at least 60 points and the win.

Fortunately, I can spell "kex", "cep" and all the other dinky words that fuel Scrabble victories. I had a decent showing in the first two days of play, finishing the weekend with a 6-8 record. I figure that's pretty respectable for someone whose Scrabble study is limited to doing the Jumble® in the morning paper.

I've never before competed in the national championships, but I've played in five or six previous tournaments, so I'm mostly immune to what outsiders would no doubt consider the essential strangeness of high-stakes Scrabble. I don't think there's anything odd about 600 people hunched over lazy Susan-style boards in a hotel ballroom. And when a Sunday morning moment of silence was devoted equally to a former champion who succumbed to a brain tumor and "all the bingos we didn't get to play yesterday," I didn't even flinch.

I'm a Division Five player, which means I compete mostly against retirees from Florida who play in their condo clubhouses and Midwestern homemakers who prefer words to macramé. It's a hodgepodge division that serves as a stopover for soon-to-be stars climbing the Scrabble ladder and hopeless players who still can't remember whether "le" is an acceptable play (it's not). Paired against a representative of the latter group on Saturday, I greedily started laying down the highest-scoring "phonies" I could concoct. I got my comeuppance when my opponent got wise and challenged her way to a win.

Players' divisions are reflected on their name tags, which meant my badge had a slip of green trim. I wish intelligence was always color-coded: It sure would be handy at parties to know whether you were about to stumble into a conversation about Justin Bieber or nuclear physics.

Division Five players should know all the three-letter words in the Scrabble dictionary; Division Four players should know all the four-letter words and so on, up through Division One, where the expectation is mastery of every legal word out there. That's probably the division where unabashed weirdness resides, although there is an Asperger-ish energy that pervades a competitive Scrabble parlor. I overheard a woman in the bathroom ask another player to fix her bra, saying, solemnly, "I know some people don't like their bodies to touch other bodies."

This stranger was happy to provide the bra fix. Every player I've ever encountered at a tournament has been kind, generous and caring. But that might be all the competitors have in common: Since brain power has no relation to size, shape, gender or color - and since all the equipment Scrabble requires costs $14.88 at Walmart - the player pool at competitive tournaments is fantastically diverse. The only problem that poses is the discomfort it creates when point values force a play from the "poo" list, the official list of vile slurs that are OK by Scrabble rules.

I didn't have many opportunities to avenge my strudel oversight on Sunday, since my fingers proved to be vowel magnets. I never saw so many vowels in my life. Still, I happened upon a few bingos, including "parsing", "facades" and "deposits," and a few non-bingo big plays. But not enough to justify sticking around for the tournament's final two days: I'm back at my desk, trying to readjust my vocabulary so you're not stuck reading about kine keepers playing deewans on their crwths.

The National Scrabble Championship concludes tomorrow.

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Hanna Raskin
Contact: Hanna Raskin

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