Longform

War of the Words

Page 5 of 5

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.

"One day, I'm going to see the word 'national' on the board, and I'll be able to play INTER and LY to make 'internationally,'" Day says. "It would be a top-to-bottom triple worth 230 points. Not as much as 'isozymic,' but it has more flair."

As for the search for meanings, Day says, just forget it. "You'll soon get over that," he says. "A few weeks--a month tops--it just won't matter to you.

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Kaylois Henry