The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 07, 2016 9:34 am

Scrabble tourney participants: Playing 'chess with tiles'

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Manop Phiphatboonserm learned English by playing Scrabble.

The native of Bangkok said that’s how some schools teach foreign language – by organizing tournaments that challenge students to form English words from letters printed on individual tiles.

Phiphatboonserm is one of 417 players in Fort Wayne through Wednesday to participate in the 2016 North American Scrabble Championship at Grand Wayne Center. Participants, who play 31 games each, are separated into five divisions, based on skill level.

The tournament’s top prize in the top division is $10,000. Other, smaller prizes are also awarded. But you don’t have to talk to the participants and organizers for long to realize that they don’t do it for the money.

Robin Pollock Daniel will provide expert commentary when the final rounds are streamed live online Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Toronto native has been playing Scrabble for 30 years and can’t seem to get enough of it. She studies scrambled word lists for two hours online every day, working her way through 50 five-letter words to 14-letter words as fast as possible.

If Pollock Daniel were participating in the tournament as a player, she would have upped that study time to four to six hours a day, starting about six months ago.

"Just like you exercise your muscles, I exercise my neurons," said the clinical psychologist, who is studying to be a homeopathic doctor.

Pollock Daniel finds similarities between her profession and her passion.

"Each patient is a new set of symptoms. Each rack is a new set of (Scrabble) tiles," she said.

The competition attracted players from 11 countries, including Australia, Nigeria, Singapore, Israel, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. Four players – plus their families – came from Thailand. Within the United States and Canada, 47 states and provinces are represented.

The youngest player is 11, and the oldest is 88.

Participants, who play one-on-one, have only 25 minutes each to make all their plays in an entire game.  Excessive talking is prohibited during tournament play. The only sound in a large room with more than 200 games in progress is the occasional clicking sound of letter tiles being shaken in a bag.

Dallas Johnson, the tournament’s director, said Scrabble players come from all walks of life, but there’s a disproportionately high number of mathematicians, computer programmers, musicians and engineers.

Johnson, a resident of Stow, Ohio, was an English major who still managed to excel at the game.

"Scrabble is a math and strategy game that happens to use words as scoring units," he said, adding that some high-level international players don’t even speak English.

Pollock Daniel described Scrabble as highly statistical.

"It is a very visual, spatial game. It is not a word game," she said. "The words are playing pieces. They don’t have meaning to us. They only have number values."

"This is chess with tiles," Pollock Daniel said. "We are constantly thinking two or three moves ahead."

Phiphatboonserm, a marketing consultant in Bangkok, has participated in American tournaments more than 10 times since his first visit in 1997. His best international finish was 17th in his division at the World Scrabble Championship 2005 in London.

"If you have a business mind you can do better because you need to plan and have strategy in mind, especially for the ending game," he said.

The best players scan the board to see which tiles have been played and calculate which ones are likely still in the bag and which are on the opponent’s rack.

For the best players, he said, the fine line between winning and losing is found in the end game.

Pollock Daniel sees unique beauty in Scrabble. Among her own memorable plays were "yahrzeit" and "dystocia."

"Every game is a snowflake," she said. "No two are alike because you never pick the same tiles." 


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