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Tuesday, June 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:20 P.M.

Scrabble competitors seek v-i-c-t-o-r-y

By Marsha King
Seattle Times staff reporter

JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Daniel Goodwin concentrates during a match yesterday at the annual Seattle Scrabble Club tournament in Seattle. Goodwin finished in seventh place in the top division.
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Seattle Scrabble Club
One of the world's best Scrabble players, Dave Wiegand of Portland, played his first word of the game — "cake" — for 26 points.

His opponent then laid down the tiles for "umbo," and Wiegand came back with the word "uranylic."

Even he has no idea exactly what uranylic means, but that's not the point. By using all seven of his tiles in one turn, Wiegand got a bingo — 50 extra points.

Welcome to the third and final day of the annual Seattle Scrabble Club tournament, where 60 players from across the Northwest, from grandmas to high-school students, competed yesterday at the Silver Cloud Inn on Lake Union.

They are among an estimated 10,000 players in the U.S. and Canada who belong to about 300 clubs in the National Scrabble Association, which sanctions about 200 tournaments a year in the U.S. and Canada.

While not everyone competing yesterday was an expert, they're not "living room" players anymore either, but rather have graduated to club play. In most cases, that means their family and friends won't play with them anymore because they always win.

How good are they?

Good enough to score an average of 360 to 400 points every game.

Good enough to know the letters S-A-T-I-N-E can be combined with 23 out of the 26 letters in the alphabet to make a seven letter word that will — bingo! — win 50 extra points.

Good enough to know words spelled with the high-point letter Q that don't also need a U.

JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A competitor counts his score yesterday during the annual Seattle Scrabble Club tournament at the Silver Cloud Inn in Seattle. The tournament drew 60 players from across the Northwest.
Top-rated Wiegand, a 29-year-old mortgage underwriter from Portland, was here to warm up for this summer's National Scrabble championship in New Orleans, at which the first-place finisher will win $25,000.

"I might have a chance to finish near the top," he said.

New to competitive club Scrabble was Rafi Stern, a 14-year-old Nathan Hale High School freshman, playing in his first tournament.

When he was in elementary school, he started playing Scrabble with his dad on Saturday afternoons after going to synagogue. But eventually, he started winning all the time because "I know more words than him and I have better board awareness."

That led to playing online with people from all over the United States, until his mom suggested he find a club in Seattle where he could play real people.

Rafi summed up his skills: "I'm a kid. I don't have as much vocabulary. But I can find words really easily in racks of letters."

Scrabble was invented during the Great Depression by unemployed architect Alfred Mosher Butts. Butts gave the game its current name in the late 1940s and soon it became the rage.

In recent years, Scrabble has resurged in popularity partly due to a book by Stefan Fatsis called "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble." But the basic rules of the game not changed:

JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Nathan Hale High School freshman Rafi Stern, 14, right, was the tournament's youngest entrant. He finished seventh in his division.
Each player draws seven letter tiles to make words that intersect on a board. Letters are worth points and certain squares on the board can double a letter's points or even triple the value of a word. An opponent may challenge the spelling of a word, and if the word is unacceptable, the player removes the word and loses a turn. If the word is acceptable, the challenger loses a turn. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

How can a living-room player get really good? Endless ways.

But "it takes more than a fantastic vocabulary to be an expert Scrabble player," said Rebecca Slivka, Seattle club president. Indeed, some expert players pride themselves on not knowing the meaning of words, but rather simply how to spell them.

Here are a few tips:

• Play often with good players.

• Learn two- and three-letter words.

• Learn words that contain high-point letters such as Q, Z, X and J.

• Study stem words like "tisane" that easily combine with another letter to form a Bingo.

Learn words that can be correctly spelled different ways — ending in either "ise" or "ize," for example, like immunise or immunize. Such words can draw an opponent into an unmerited challenge that will cost him a turn.

After Seattle's tournament was over, young Rafi Stern had placed 7th out of 20 in his division — an excellent showing for the youngest player. And, in a toughly contested match, Wiegand took first in the top division, winning $500.

Is the game ho-hum once you've mastered it?

"I still love it, even when I get bad tiles," Wiegand said. "It's just a lot of fun to reach into the bag and pull out seven tiles and see what the possibilities are."

Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or mking@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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