Tag Archives: Jeffrey Pogue

Jeffrey Pogue Picks Xis

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.

The North American School Scrabble Championship competition.

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.

Jeffrey Pogue (right) and Noah Slatkoff, in the zone.

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.

The Rackmasters’ 1st loss in 2 years was livestreamed.

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.

Ta-da!

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.

The winners: Jeffrey Pogue and Noah Slatkoff.

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 corneliasguest@gmail.com 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.

Jeffrey Pogue with his proud father, David.

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.