Matt De Waelsche is the highest-ranked and most experienced of the five local players competing at the National Scrabble Championship in Las Vegas, Saturday through Wednesday. He’s played more than 2,000 tournament games, stretching back to the 1985 nationals.
He’s the 490th ranked player in the North American Scrabble Players Association with a 1451 rating.
At his height of play, De Waelsche was rated 1869, placing him just outside the top 100 players in North America.
Jennifer Zinn, with a 647 rating and a NASPA ranking of 1602, is the least experienced of the San Antonio players who arrived in Vegas Thursday and Friday, with only 29 tournament games under her belt as she prepares to compete for the first time at the national championships.
Those are just numbers. Here’s where the story starts to get good.
Matt and Jennifer are both librarians. He is a genealogist at the San Antonio Central Library. Jennifer is the librarian at Rogers Middle School in the San Antonio Independent School District. We have never met, but she told me she won a grant from the SAISD Foundation (I serve on that board) to purchase Scrabble games for students, one of the most engaging ways there is to teach vocabulary and spatial thinking.
Scrabble players, like music students, don’t drop out of school. Scoring high is habit-forming.
Matt and Jennifer met on an online dating service a year and half ago, about the same time we were launching the Rivard Report.
“I moved to San Antonio about two years ago and I contacted him on a dating site because he mentioned Scrabble and theme parks in his profile,” Jennifer said. “I enjoy playing Scrabble, but had never played competitively, and I’m big roller coaster fan.”
I had assumed they met at the San Antonio Scrabble Club, which meets Thursday evenings at the Lion’s Field at Brackenridge Park on Broadway, but Jennifer didn’t even join the local Scrabble club until after she and Matt had been dating for a few months.
“We didn’t play Scrabble on our first date, but we did on our second, and I actually beat him,” she said. “He said that got his attention, and I guess the rest is history.”
Scrabble Club here and in other cities in friendly but also competitive. It isn’t living room Scrabble. Players commit to memory thousands of words the average person might not recognize, from two letter combos such as “za” and “qi” to seven-letter bonus words, called bingos in Scrabble, like “muzjiks” or “cazique.” When a player succeeds in playing all seven letters in the game, it’s called a bingo. That adds 50 points to the base score of the face value of the letters plus any multiplier squares covered in the word play.
A well-played bingo or two can break an opponent’s spirit. Club players, I learned from our own son, Alex Rivard, who will compete in Las Vegas, study a basic 20,000 word compendium of seven-letter words. Knowing every acceptable two, three and four-letter word in the 178,000 word official Scrabble dictionary is essential, too, if you intend to compete at an elite level.
Tournament play, especially the National Scrabble Championship, is something else all together. This is not Scrabble for smart people who enjoy board games and a good challenge. This year’s 527 registered players, all NASPA ranked, face a grueling marathon of 36 games spread over five days. Each player faces not only his or her opponent, but also the clock, which begins with 25 minutes of time for each player. Exceed your time limit and you lose points at the end of the game, perhaps enough to lose a game you otherwise won.
There are three other players from the San Antonio competing in Las Vegas..
Dr. Eric Miller, a New Braunfels anesthesiologist, is making his first trip to nationals.
“I started off with school Scrabble in Pennsylvania,” Miller said Thursday after a long day seeing patients. “In my district every child had to compete in a regional Scrabble tournament. I took a break through college, med school, and the first part of my career.
Miller’s 1165 rating and NASPA rating of 921 probably understates his potential. He has only 44 tournament games under his belt, but his winning percentage is nearly .600
Miller was drawn back to Scrabble as an adult by Nancy Scott, a senior care center volunteer in Schertz, who will be playing in her 21st national championship tournament.
“My mother and I had always played Scrabble, and years ago I read in the newspaper about the club, and when I went they said I was pretty good,” Scott said. “My first tournament was here in San Antonio, and for my second tournament I went to Lafayette, La., mainly to eat Cajun food, but I ended up winning money.”
Scott now carries a 1284 rating, and a NASPA rank of 724. Like De Waelsche, she, too, was rated much higher at her peak of play, at one time holding a 1652 rating.
Scott, 72, has only missed nationals twice since 1990, once in 1994 when she lost her husband, a retired career Air Force officer, and in 2004 when she lost another family member.
“I remarried and my husband told me not to let my new marriage interfere with my real life playing Scrabble,” she quipped.
The fifth player from San Antonio is Robert Fenske, a software engineer and analyst at Southwest Research Institute. He’s coming off a strong third-place finish at an Austin tournament. His 1394 rating and 556th NASPA ranking make him the second highest ranked player after De Waelsche.
A Rivard Report story published Monday, “An Amateur’s Peek at the World of Competitive Scrabble,” led to several ranked players in San Antonio to contact me. We will await their reports and share them here as the tournament progresses at the Riviera Casino & Hotel.
Unlike poker tourneys where amateurs with a big enough stake can buy their way into the big time, competitors in the National Scrabble Championship must be ranked NASPA members. Individual rankings, based on local and regional tournament play, determine which of four championship divisions each of the 527 registered players will be seeded.
Division One, with players rated 1700 or higher, will not have a San Antonio player this year. Division Two, with players rated 1400 or higher, will include De Waelsche.
Division Three, with players rated 1100 or higher, should include Fenske, Scott and Miller if you go by the numbers, but Scott expects Fenske and herself to be seeded in Division Two. Division Four, which is where less experienced tournament players with a rank below 1100 are seeded, will include Zinn. She’ll probably play her way into Division Three if she keeps playing and, on occasion, beating De Waelsche.
The ratings and rankings of all 527 players will rise or fall based on their performance in Las Vegas. A player with a strong showing can easily move up one division.
Regardless of their ranking, all players face the same schedule: 36 games, all on the clock, starting Saturday morning and ending mid-day Wednesday.
As noted in our earlier story, San Antonio’s top-ranked player, Jason Randolph (1601, 296th), will not be in Las Vegas this year. Fellow players say summer classes at UTSA are keeping him busy. Randolph has been competing for only three years, and De Waelsche described him as a “rocket.”
I’ve never met Randolph, but he became a part of championship tournament lore last year at the 2012 National Scrabble Championship in Orlando, Fl., when he was belatedly declared the 2011 Division Three champion and paid the $2,000 prize. It happened after a precocious juvenile was caught cheating at the 2012 National Scrabble Championship in Orlando. An opponent had accused him of cheating in 2011, too, but the charge went unproven. Last year he was caught red-handed.
The cheater was a teenage Scrabble whiz whose rapid ascent in the national rankings had aroused considerable suspicion among those who played against him. His game scores rose and fell wildly, suggesting some of his more dramatic wins were somehow illegally aided. His unmasking is a sad but fascinating story, which you can listen to here on National Public Radio as Stefan Fatsis, NPR contributor and best-selling author of “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players,” explains how the kid was caught trying palm the game’s two highly valued blank tiles.
Fatsis also wrote Scrabbling Over Scrabble, a widely shared story published last Sunday in the New York Times, that undoubtedly will be all the talk at the national championship in Las Vegas. The story examines the decision by HASBRO, a $4 billion corporation and the owner of Scrabble and many other popular game titles, to pull its financial support from the National Scrabble Championship.
The National Scrabble Championship has been moving around from city to city each year. It would make an ideal addition to San Antonio’s pop culture scene, and given its precarious finances, relatively few sponsorship dollars would be needed to convince NASPA to come here.
Meanwhile, there is always club Scrabble at the Lion’s Field on Thursday evenings for three hours, and come Labor Day, the San Antonio Scrabble Club will host its first tournament in some years in Schertz. Prize money will based on the number of entry fees collected. The Rivard Report will publish details as they become available.
Could one of the five San Antonio players score big in Las Vegas? Randolph did it in Dallas at the 2011 championship tourney. It could happen again this year in Las Vegas.
“I don’t go in expecting to win, I just go to enjoy the ride, but I’ve won my share of my tournaments.,” Scott said. “Nationals are always a big deal, you see friends from all over the country that you only see once a year. I know quite a few of the top players, but they don’t really associate with us. Some of them are very approachable, but some of them come off with an attitude.”