Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Word Scoring

By Ben Winters

MARCH 29, 1999:  Unlike so many modern hotels, the Elmhurst Marriott - home today to a Chicago-area Scrabble tournament - stands alone at the edge of a forest preserve, jutting disconcertingly out of the level surroundings like a single uncooperative Q in an otherwise great rack. Forgive the metaphor: After a couple of hours at the tourney, immersed deeply in the world of double and triple word scores and seven-letter "bingo's" - it's double points for cleaning out your rack, you know - it becomes difficult to think of the world in terms other than those acceptable to the National Scrabble Association.

Arriving around 11 a.m., I find the fifty-two players in attendance today have just begun the second round of the two-day, thirteen-game competition. Crowded into a single conference room and paired off, the contestants are a motley crew: a handicapped grandmother and a college student with a Fuel T-shirt and chic goatee, middle-aged businessmen and single moms. The youngest competitor is a fresh-faced 15-year-old who smiles and glances around the room with excitement and nervousness; I'm reminded of myself at my Bar Mitzvah.

Also present, the tournament organizers tell me proudly, is National Scrabble champion Brian Cappelletto, who by day is a stockbroker here in Chicago. And lost off Highway 83 but expected momentarily is a yet brighter star: Joel Sherman, World Scrabble champion, who knocked out competitors from Japan, Canada and Malaysia to take the crown last year.

Looking over the shoulders of the combatants, expecting to see an endless array of seven-letter blockbusters, I am surprised at the unassuming little words being deployed: streams of IF and HE and CAN, two and three letter wordlets sprawling in uneven staircase patterns across the 50th Anniversary Edition rotating boards. Official tournament minister Nedd Kareiva clues me in a moment later: "To win games," he tells me, "You've got to know your twos and threes."

Which isn't to say that more impressive verbiage isn't also being deployed. LOAM, OVARIES, TANKING, PLUMBER. I spot DEFAULT twice - once with a blank tile, the Scrabble equivalent of a wild card - in place of the U.

Assistant tourney organizer Ken Sherlock ("Both my first and last names are legal for play, you know") shows me the official Tournament Scrabble Dictionary, which, he tells me confidentially, "Is different than the one you can get in stores." In a moment I find out why: It seems that tournament players are allowed to play blue. The thick volume, bound in handsome mahogany faux-leather like a Baptist Bible, includes all the words your mother never played: FUCK, FUCKED, FUCKING, FUCKER.

And today's competitors aren't shy about using all available routes. As I continue to roam the room, I blush to see CUM on one board, and BI, as in bisexual, on another. Hey, you've got to know your twos and threes.

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