Longform

War of the Words

Page 3 of 5

"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."

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."

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Kaylois Henry