Jeffrey Pogue’s Quixotry, Muzjiks-Filled Scrabble Championship

Alert “06880” reader/tech guru/proud father David Pogue writes:

When I grew up in Cleveland, my parents regularly brought out the familiar Scrabble set — 100 letter tiles in a bag — as a family activity.

But competitive Scrabble is a different world, and around here, Cornelia Guest is the doorway into it. She’s a Scrabble champion in her own right, a real aficionado, and she runs a weekly Scrabble club at the Ridgefield library. Over the years, she’s cultivated a number of Scrabble champions.

My older son Kell joined her club for a couple of years. That’s how we discovered the Hasbro North American School Scrabble Championship, an annual 2-day tournament for middle  and high schoolers. (There’s a Rubik’s Cube championship held concurrently.)

My youngest son, Jeffrey, is 13 and a 7th grader at Bedford Middle School. Last year he entered the Championship in Boston; he and his partner came in 10th. “I was a bit upset that I didn’t do as well as I hoped,” he says. (Yes, I interviewed my own kid for this story.)

“But I also learned what it’s like, and how to study and practice. This year I studied a lot more. I used a study program called Zyzziva.”

Only months before the North American Championship, Jeffrey found himself without a partner. “Cornelia has a lot of contacts in the Scrabble world. She found Noah Slatkoff, a Canadian kid. In a previous tournament he placed 2nd in his division against a bunch of adults.”

Jeffrey met him online, via Skype. The video didn’t work for the first month or so, so Jeffrey never knew what his partner looked like. But they screen-shared, and played online games of Scrabble a couple of times a week.

Jeffrey Pogue (right) and Noah Slatkoff.

Jeffrey says that their skills matched up nicely. “Noah is really good at getting us out of sticky situations — like if there are a few tiles that are hard to fit onto the board, he’ll find a place to play them — whereas I like finding high-point plays. So if we have, like, the W or the F tiles, which are worth 4 points each, I try to find a place to play them where they’ll be worth 30 points.”

Incredibly (to me), the 2 boys never met in person until they arrived at the Championship in Philly past this weekend.

It’s an unbelievable event. Hasbro runs it (the ulterior motive is probably to foster a new generation of Scrabble fans). But it’s warm, well-run, and spirited. It feels like a friendly sort of nerd Olympics.

Hanging out at the North American Championship.

The event was held at Lincoln Field, where the Eagles play. Not on the field itself (Scrabble isn’t that popular), but on the mezzanine areas inside the stadium. Huge banks of tables are set up with Scrabble boards, score sheets, and timing clocks.

Family members sit in a different area, so we can’t watch the games. But during each of the 9  rounds, we can watch one particular game — the matchup of 2  current leaders, for example — on big screens mounted through the area. There’s an overhead camera for the board, a manned TV camera trained on the players, and sneaky little surface cameras to show the players’ Scrabble racks.

Jeffrey and Noah in mid-match. Note the chyron at the bottom of the screen.

Professional commentators deliver play-by-play, just like on ESPN. It’s amazing. “Oooooh, that’s a brilliant play! They managed to dump those extra vowels, and landed on the triple-word score square. Now the Scrabbula team is at a huge disadvantage. The only question is, will they realize that ‘outgets’ is not actually in the Scrabble dictionary? Will they challenge?” And so on.

By the end of the first day, the Rackmasters — the Jeffrey-Noah team — had won all 6 of their matches. Undefeated! We, their parents, were freaking out.

“Before every single game, Noah and I got really nervous,” Jeff says. “A lot of the players are older than us. ‘Oh no, these opponents look scary! Do you think we can do this?’ And when we finally realized, ‘Wait a minute, we’re going to the finals!,’ we both got really excited. It was crazy.”

As Day 1 ends, Hasbro throws a huge party for the competitors and their families: face painting, a DJ, dancing, sketch artists, giant Jenga towers, Nerf football toss, food for all the competitors. Suddenly the competition is forgotten, and they’re all just kids. It’s kind of awesome.

On Day 2, Sunday, there are 2 more matches. Each new opponent is tougher than the one before. The Rackmasters had won Game 6 by only 27 points. It seemed improbable that our boys could sustain their incredible momentum.

Game on!

But sure enough they won Game 7, and then Game 8, guaranteeing a slot in the final playoff.

This final game pairs the top 2 teams. It’s winner take all. Doesn’t matter what your record is from the weekend so far; whoever wins this game wins the $10,000 first prize.

The tournament is livestreamed online, so Jeffrey and Noah’s far-flung relatives and friends all tuned in to watch. These kids are so advanced, you probably wouldn’t even recognize half of what they played as words. Aurei? Tavs? Agee? Ferin? Zori?

After 45 minutes of intellectual battle, the Rackmasters played their last tile, signifying the end of the game.

Jeffrey and Noah’s final board. How many of these words do you know?

“At first my brain didn’t register it,” Jeffrey says. “We shook hands with the other team, and the room was really quiet for a bit. Then we’re like, ‘Oh wait — we have a few more points than they do! We… WON!’ I gave Noah a little hug. It was crazy. My mind was racing.”

His mind, but my heart. The competition was thrilling to see (you can watch the final match online here), and of course I’m proud enough to burst. These kids really worked for it — Jeffrey sat on the couch, night after night for weeks, teaching himself every possible 7-letter word from the 300 most commonly-drawn sets of tiles — and it’s my hope that they’ll take away some good lessons in the value of preparation, good sportsmanship, even money management. (Jeffrey plans to invest some of his $5,000 share and give some to charity.)

In the meantime, Cornelia welcomes anyone in grades 3 to 8 to join the club, which meets at Ridgefield Library every Tuesday from 6 to 7 p.m. (Email her at corneliasguest@gmail.com for details.)

Who knows? Maybe one day soon, it could be your kid scoring 126 points for QUIXOTRY or MUZJIKS at the North American Scrabble Championship.

Jeffrey Pogue and his proud dad, David.

8 responses to “Jeffrey Pogue’s Quixotry, Muzjiks-Filled Scrabble Championship

  1. Great story, Dan. Congrats to David Pogue and his amazing son. Well, amazing dad too!

  2. This is a really cool story – more confirmation for my personal theory that generations keep getting smarter than those preceding them!

  3. Nadine Tanen

    Congratulations Jeffrey & Noah – an awesome accomplishment!

  4. Bettina Gangi

    I read this entire article with a smile on my face…loved Scrabble and wished that my kids had taken it up. Will forward to my brother (now 76), who read the dictionary growing up and became a whiz at spelling bees and Scrabble. He will enjoy reading this as much as I have…My congrats to Jeffrey and Noah!
    Tina Gangi

  5. Kerstin Rao

    This is one amazing accomplishment! I’m overjoyed for Jeffrey and Noah! Fun Westport fact – Bedford Middle School sent two pairs of students to the first-ever National School Scrabble Competition in Boston in April 2003. It’s a wonderful event and quite an honor that we have a national champ in our hometown!

  6. Barbara Sherburne '67

    Congratulations to Jeffrey and Noah on a fantastic accomplishment!!! I love Scrabble, but yeah, there were several words on that board I never heard of. Pht? I looked it up in my Scrabble dictionary, and yeah, it’s there. “Used as an expression of mild anger or annoyance.” Outstanding job by those two young boys!!

  7. Eric Chaikin

    Please add the letters VWD to the title of this post so it can be a proper pangram…as God intended

  8. Heidi Robertson

    FERIN* is a phony … INFER or FINER only.

    (Noah’s Ottawa Scrabble Club mate)