War of the Words

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"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.

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."

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Kaylois Henry