Alert reader/nationally known tech guru/writer/TV star/proud Westport parent David Pogue writes:
Last year at this time, I wrote a guest post for “06880” about the Hasbro North American School Scrabble Tournament. The huge, 2-day event for kids was in its 16th year. First prize for the middle-school division: $10,000.
The reason: Last year, my son Jeffrey — then a Bedford Middle School 7th grader — and his partner Noah won it.
This weekend, they went back to defend their championship.
There were reasons for optimism: The boys had had another year to prepare, playing Scrabble online every day and studying lists of obscure words.
On the other hand, their team — the Rackmasters — caught everyone by surprise last year. “They kind of came out of nowhere,” said Kevin Belinkoff, a play-by-play commentator (it’s live-streamed, so far-flung family can watch). “They weren’t one of the favored teams coming in, and did a tremendous job.”
Great! But that meant another “out of nowhere” team could sweep the tournament this year.
And of course, luck is a factor. If you get terrible letters — all vowels, for example— it’s hard to win.
This year’s event was held in a Marriott ballroom in Philadelphia. It did not start well. Jeffrey’s partner, Noah Slatkoff, lives in Canada. Thunderstorms canceled his flight. So Noah and his dad drove through the night — 7 1/2 hours — to get there on time.
Nonetheless, the Rackmasters dominated the 6 games of Day One. They defeated their opponents by huge margins (like 603 to 271!). That’s important, because in the event of a tied record at the end, the total point “spread” determines who advances to the finals, for all the marbles.
There weren’t as many marbles this year. Hasbro had a tough 2018 — the demise of Toys R Us hurt sales — and cost-cutting affected the Scrabble championship.
The top prize was $3,000, down from $10,000; the venue was an airport hotel instead of a sports stadium, and the opening party was a ghost of its traditional carnival-like self.
Nobody cared. A kids’ Scrabble tournament is a friendly affair, a chance to spend a weekend away from home, running around with fellow word nerds. It still felt thrilling and well-run.
Day Two did not begin well for our Rackmasters. They lost their first game by 7 points — their first championship loss in 2 years. Their opponents (the Scrabble All-Stars) drew some amazing tiles, including 3 incredibly useful “S”s, both of the blank tiles, and all of the high-point ones: J, X, Q, K, and Z.
Our boys were no longer undefeated, nor in first place. Their spirits crashed.
When they won their next game though, their record was 7-1, tied with the All-Stars and another team. Who would advance to the final, against the sole 8–0 team?
Rackmasters! Their huge point spread from the previous day ensured them a place at the big table onstage.
Their opponents — the Dyslexic Manic Shop — weren’t strangers. One boy had been Jeffrey’s partner 2 years ago at this event.
The final game was brilliant. First one team pulled ahead, then the other, over and over again. Parents and players, sequestered in a different room and watching by video, shrieked and applauded each play.
As usual in high-level Scrabble, many of the plays were not common English words (oolite, scry, haj awa …).
As the letters ran out, Jeffrey and Noah faced a tough call. They could play “ixia” for 39 points (as everyone knows, that’s a South African plant of the iris family), or “xis” for 19 (the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet).
They played the lower-scoring word.
It was strategic. They figured on their next turn they could add an A, forming “axis,” thus harvesting all 8 points of that X tile a second time. That A could also be a part of a new word going down — and landing on the juicy Triple Word Score tile in the lower-left corner.
That’s exactly what happened. The Rackmasters won — for the 2nd straight year.
It will be their last victory. Next month, Jeffrey graduates from Bedford. As a Staples freshman he’ll no longer be eligible for the middle school division. That’s the main event, with big cash prizes and the most participants. In the high school division, you play alone.
It’s time for the next generation of Westport Scrabble champions to emerge. Jeffrey got involved (and met his partner Noah) through Cornelia Guest, a national Scrabble figure. She runs a weekly club at the Ridgefield Library, where she teaches, coaches and nurtures young players. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.)
Jeffrey also plays at weekly Scrabble Club meetings at the Pequot library in Southport, closer to home.
Jeffrey highly recommends Scrabble clubs to your kids (so does his dad). It’s a full-brain activity, requiring skills in language, math and strategy. It’s non-electronic and tactile. It’s social. And it’s every bit as exciting as any sporting event.
For Jeffrey there are benefits far beyond prizes, trophies and thrilling weekends in Philly. For the rest of his life, should the conversation ever turn to Greek letters or South African flowering plants, he’ll be ready.