here, there, everywhere

A Different Kind of Scrabble Player


It’s a warm fall day in 2003, and there’s a scent of falling leaves in the air as I go to meet a friend for lunch. A professed Scrabble aficionado, he spends a good part of the meal talking about the negative stereotype that labels Scrabble players. Word Freak, a book about the die-hard players in North America, focuses on the freaks or weirdoes, the social misfits who are obsessive compulsive and socially inept. My friend argues that if almost everyone you know has played the game at least once, why make serious players the butt of all these stories? (Maybe because it was invented by Alfred Butts in the 1930’s?)

He also says it’s time for someone to write about the people and the clubs they join where they play for fun, or find the players who are competitive but balanced. When I volunteer to try, he sends me off to start my search with a visit to Scrabble in the City, a Toronto Scrabble social club. “That would be a decent place to get the scoop on the game and they might even let you  watch…”

So that’s why I’m trudging through the chill night rain a few weeks later in search of the club. Deep in the basement of a pub, The Bishop and The Belcher, a gas fire blazes merrily in the fireplace as Queen Victoria condescends from her framed portrait on the wall. Brass chandeliers cast a warm glow on the textured wallpaper and a waiter bobs in and out of the room with beer and the daily specials. Heather McCall, the mastermind of Scrabble in the City, moves like a cat between tables overseeing the games. McCall, 30, started the Monday night social club less than a year ago. “It’s not competitive and not necessarily about winning or losing; it may just be about meeting people,” she says as she crunches down on a taco.

The group tonight is small but diverse: a single mom, a comedy writer, a teacher, and an I.T. guy, Evan Berofsky. Berofsky, 28, is Canada’s up and coming world champion hopeful. He’s far more advanced than anyone else here, but he likes the practice and he enjoys the club’s relaxed social atmosphere.

Except for the ambient music drifting out of overhead speakers, the room is quiet as players concentrate. Once in awhile there’s a burst of laughter as someone plays a crude word (ANESTRI, a period of sexual dormancy), or hurls a charming insult at an opponent, “She’s a damn Brit.”

This is all pretty relaxed; is there another club where the players are more competitive? I ask McCall. She suggests I’ll find more drama and intensity if I head north to the Toronto Scrabble Club where the real Scrabble go-getters meet. “It’s hard-core and people probably won’t be too welcoming,” she warns. Berofsky’s going to the next meeting and says I can tag along.

So it’s a crisp and frosty Wednesday evening when I bus my way up to the Earl Bales Community Centre, which hosts North America’s oldest Scrabble club. Despite the chill outside, the cinder block room, cold fluorescent lighting, and McCall’s earlier warning, I’m warmly greeted by almost everyone in attendance, probably because I’m with Berofsky and he’s somewhat of a celebrity. But as he fidgets with his wristwatch and paces back and forth waiting for the games to begin, he’s quick to say, “Thankfully I don’t have a fan club.”

As the games start, I scan the room to assess the crowd. It’s a colourful mix of people and the men seem to dress up more than the women. There’s at least one sharply pressed suit in the room standing out amidst the mainly Eddie Bauer attire. The women, although not as nattily dressed, are colourful and vibrant. One walks in wearing leopard-print pants and carrying a floral-print bag. Another with a glittering eyeglass chain hanging in her long grey hair sucks on a lollipop, deep in concentration. Yet another bounces up and down in her chair as she waits for her opponent to play his word.

There’s a lot of gum chewing and half-empty water bottles lie on the tables and floors. One unfortunate gentleman sits with slumped shoulders, and stares with sad, doleful eyes at his regretful rack: E,O,U,I,I,I,blank. And that’s after he gave up a turn to exchange other equally bad letters for some more playable ones.

This is a very serious club. There is NO NOISE when games are in play. The only sounds are hands in Scrabble bags searching for letters, the clinking of tile on tile sounding like rain on a tin roof. In low voices players call out the score for their word. Sometimes they call out too loudly and shushing sounds are made through clenched teeth until it quiets down again.

Between matches I make my way around the room in search of unique stories. Anyone have an odd study technique? Yeah, says one club member. Talk to Tony Leah. He studies while he drives to work.

I find Leah at the results board eyeing the scores and rankings from last week’s games. As I approach him and explain my mission, he chuckles and folds his arms before settling into an explanation. Yes, he studies in his car because it’s the only free time in his day. The commute to and from work gives him an hour of uninterrupted study. But how does he study if he’s driving? Rocking back and forth on his heels as he talks, Leah, 54, explains that he made a flashcard holder and attached it to the car’s dashboard. He inserts flashcards with seven letters on the front and possible combinations on the back. As his eyes dart back and forth between the letters and the road, he quizzes himself on the combos. He’s dressed conservatively in a pressed button-down shirt and clean dress pants. His voice is soft when he speaks and I have to strain above the din of the crowd to hear what he’s saying. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d wreak havoc on the road. “No, no,” he laughs. “I haven’t had any accidents or close calls. My driving record is excellent and the studying doesn’t take away from my ability to drive.” Besides, with the Canadian Scrabble Championships coming up, he needs all the study time he can get.

Championships?

It’s 8 a.m. on a cold, dreary December morning, and I’m dragging myself down to the posh surroundings of the exclusive Ontario Club to check out the Canadian Scrabble Championships. The big guns, Joel Wapnick, David Boys, Mike Ryan, are all here but you can’t distinguish them from the rest of the participants as heads bow down and shoulders hunch over the Scrabble boards in front of them. Well, you can tell who’s from the West Coast; Berofsky says they’re the ones wearing shorts. The constant clicking of tiles is the loudest sound in the room. At the end of each round, defeated players pace the hallways, frustrated as the chance of making it to the finals slips away, while winners laugh, drink coffee, and swap game stories with each other.

After two and a half days of competition, we reach the final round and the two top dogs, Dean Saldanha, 21, and David Boys, 39, are gunning for first place in the best of five games. They are sequestered in a “secret” room. Sometimes spectators get excited and blurt out possible words or plays, spoiling the game and embarrassing themselves. So the players sit alone with a judge; in a room nearby, an eight foot square Scrabble board is hung on the wall, giant racks and six inch tiles off to the side. As the players draw tiles in the secret room, the letters are relayed back to the viewing room and the giant tiles are moved to the racks. The spectators play their own game for a bit, yelling out possible plays. Robin Pollock Daniel, the foxy top female Scrabble player in the country, is at the front of the room colour-commentating. “That’s a good American word, GUNLORE.” Clap, clap, clap. Dressed head to toe in black leather, she’s Scrabble’s Vanna White as she velcroes the tiles to the squares on the board once the finalists’ plays are announced.

Despite the building excitement as the game heats up, the room starts to blur.  It’s not until Berofsky pokes me in the ribs near the end of the second round to point out a particularly beautiful word that I realize I’ve fallen asleep. Time to change venues.

I manage to wrangle my way into the secret room and seat myself next to a daily newspaper photographer covering the event. At first he sits with his camera, occasionally aiming it at the table where the finalists sit. Eventually he gets up and skirts the table, sometimes kneeling to capture a better angle. When he gets back to his seat, I ask him what exactly he’s trying to get. “Something with action, a bit of drama. I think I’ll get a shot of that guy (Boys) with the pencil in his mouth,” he whispers as he shakes his head. “No Scrabble board in the shot?” I ask. “Nah,” he says. “That’s not interesting enough.” I’d laugh, but we’re not allowed to make noise.

We take a break after game three. I’m not sure if the photo guy got anything, but I get a tip from one of the other spectators that Zev Kaufman has a story to tell about Saturday tournaments.

When Kaufman’s in game mode, he sits as if posing for a kindergarten photo – back straight, knees together, hands folded in front. But despite his innocent appearance, he’s a killer Scrabble player. At 57, he’s a Toronto Scrabble legend with 12 club championships to his name. What’s the big deal about Saturdays?

I hunt down Kaufman after Boys wins the championship in four games. As the new champion poses beside the giant Scrabble board for photos, I slide up next to Kaufman and start pestering him about Saturdays. It turns out he’s an Orthodox Jew. The Talmud doesn’t list specific Scrabble rules, but it does say contact with electricity and creative behaviour isn’t permissible on the Sabbath. So if a tournament falls on a Saturday, Kaufman isn’t able to use electric clocks or write anything down.

In 1991 at the World Championships, his solution to the clock problem was getting someone else to hit the timer for him. But the method wasn’t efficient so he turned to a wind-up clock instead. It’s acceptable as long as it’s wound before he plays; the work to get it wound was done before the sun set. All he has to do is reach over and release the timer switch.

That problem solved, Kaufman still couldn’t write down words or scores because writing is considered creative activity under Talmudic law. He tried using other people to tabulate his points – he’d call out his score and his assistant would do the adding. But the helpers were never fast enough and he got frustrated with the stress of waiting for someone else to do his job. So now he takes a bookmark and places it in his Scrabble dictionary on the page number that matches his score. Kaufman continues to compete on the Sabbath, but sighs as he admits his playing is not so good on those days.

The championships are finished for another year. The giant Scrabble board is folded up and packed away until next time. I’m kind of sad it’s over. I’ve enjoyed my foray into the underworld of letters and words. These Scrabble players – they’re cool, intelligent, quirky, and dedicated to learning all the words in the English world. Yes, I’ve found the people my friend sent me to look for.

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