A signed copy of "Word Freak." Photo courtesy of High Scoring Phony
Robert Rivard

Come Friday, 527 talented wordsmiths will gather at the Riviera Casino & Hotel in Las Vegas for the five-day National Scrabble Championship. Beyond the usual chatter about frontrunners, no-shows, and new words to be listed in the next edition of the official Scrabble dictionary, players will be struggling with a decision by Scrabble owner HASBRO to cut off financial support for organized play.

The cutoff has led to the demise of the National Scrabble Association, although ranked members belong to the North American Scrabble Players Association, and need financial support far more than they need a trade organization.

The NSA and players have depended heavily on funding from HASBRO, which acquired the rights to Scrabble in 1989, and also owns Monopoly among many other titles. The $4 billion corporation has decided it can market the popular game without underwriting tournament play the way it once did.

The decision is big news in the Scrabble world, witness the story, Scrabbling Over Scrabble, in Sunday’s New York Times by journalist Stefan Fatsis, the leading chronicler of Scrabble at the national tournament level and himself a rated competitor.

Fatsis, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and National Public Radio contributor, holds a 1597 national rating, which makes him the 300th best player around. Our son, Alexander Rivard, a relative newcomer to national competition at the highest level (this is his second or third National Championship, I believe) has a 1256 national rating, making him the 778th best player. He’s my window into this arcane world.

Nigel Richards, four-time national champion. Photo courtesy of NASPA
Nigel Richards, four-time national champion. Photo courtesy of NASPA

How serious are these guys? You have no idea. I strongly recommend Fatsis’ definitive book on Scrabble tournament play and players, “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players.”

Fatsis wrote about sports for the WSJ for more than decade, and he brings a very sharp eye to board competition, too. His own obsession with Scrabble mirrored the national resurgence in the game. His book was a New York Times best seller and a NYT Notable Book. It was written more than a decade ago, but remains the best account of the intense, often bizarre subculture of competitive Scrabble and the game’s many odd balls and brilliant practitioners who obsessively study the 178,000 words listed in the official dictionary, many of which the fluent English speaker would not recognize.

A signed copy of "Word Freak." Photo courtesy of High Scoring Phony
A signed copy of “Word Freak.” Photo courtesy of High Scoring Phony

Alex Rivard is too busy working as a line cook in Boston to compete in many tournaments these days (none so far in 2013), or to post with any regularity, on his Scrabble Tumblr, High Scoring Phony.

The page draws its title from a legal tactic in official Scrabble play in which a player bluffs and intentionally posts a “phony” on the board, a word he or she knows is non-existent, but hopes will pass scrutiny. It’s a high risk move. An experienced player likely will challenge the word, which would cause the bluffer to lose a turn. But phonies do get played, even at the national championship tourney. The challenger must think hard before challenging, facing the same loss of turn if the word proves to be legit.

Fatsis likely will be playing in Division II, while Alex is likely to land in Division Three. There are four divisions of play.

The San Antonio Visitors and Convention Bureau should consider sending an observer to the Las Vegas tournament with an eye toward bidding as a future host city. San Antonio could move in while the window of opportunity exists and explore what it would cost to secure the tournament for a five-year run. The number of participants and, thus, hotel rooms, might be small, but the buzz would more than make up for it. San Antonio can always use another good convention in July, and these guys stay inside all day. They don’t really care how hot it is outside.

The game of Scrabble has enjoyed a sustained resurgence in recent years. It’s one game that seems to be as popular on Facebook as it is with seniors who still play on a real board. The advent of game apps has only added to Scrabble’s popularity, allowing people to play “against the computer” at self-selected levels of expertise, or play Words With Friends or some other version of the game that has allowed Scrabble to ride the social media wave.

Yet the Division One winner in Las Vegas will win a mere $10,000. So it wouldn’t take much for San Antonio to get the attention of tournament organizers. And if purses were better, tournament attendance would undoubtedly climb.

All-time high personal best for Alex Rivard at Connecticut tourney. Final score: 621-245. Photo courtesy of High Scoring Phony.
All-time high personal best for Alex Rivard at Connecticut tourney. Final score: 621-245. Photo courtesy of High Scoring Phony.

San Antonio is not as active in terms of club play as, say, Austin. Weekly club play traditionally has taken place at the Lion’s Field on Broadway, but I can’t find any current scheduled play listed on the City’s site. I’m only an avid “living room player,” as Alex one described me in a way that made me wince. I’ve never played at the club level, much less in a tournament. Like many, I live in a world of computer Scrabble.

San Antonio’s top-ranked player is Jason Randolph (1601, 296th). Randolph’s name doesn’t appear on this year’s tournament registry, but San Antonio’s other highly ranked player, Matt Dewaelsche (1451, 489th), is playing.

I’ve never met Randolph, but he became a part of championship tournament lore last year when he was belatedly declared the 2011 Division Three champion and paid the $2,000 prize, one year after the fact when the declared winner, a juvenile, was caught cheating at the 2012 championship tournament and subsequently banned and erased from the record books. The cheater was a teenage whiz kid whose rapid ascent in the national rankings had aroused considerable suspicion among those who played against him. His unmasking at the 2012 National Championships in Orlando is a sad but fascinating story, which you can listen to here on NPR. Fatsis explains how the kid was caught red-handed as he tried to palm the game’s two highly valued blank tiles.

There’s nothing new about cheating, of course, and Scrabble players who want more can check out this 1995 story from Sports Illustrated, “Your Words Against Mine.

"Director, please": Jason Idalski and Bryan Pepper, in striped shirts, are an essential part of every tournament. Photo courtesy of NASPA.
“Director, please”: Jason Idalski and Bryan Pepper, in striped shirts, are an essential part of every tournament. Photo courtesy of NASPA.

Normally, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but the Rivard Report will contact Dewaelsche and try to report on his play. San Antonio’s best Scrabble players are unknown outside the Texas tournament circuit. The Rivard Report is ready to give them their due.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.