Fighting Words


Duke Ellington once said that playing bop was like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing. Like jazz, Scrabble is a worldwide occurrence with frenetic rhythms and wildly improvised linguistic combinations. It’s “the rhythm,” says Robin Daniel, 39, the top-ranked player in Canada and the No. 1 female player in the world. “There’s a rhythm to this game, a mathematics.”

Four of the 14 members of the U.S. national Scrabble team are, as Ellington was, based in and around New York, so maybe the city’s energy translates as well to Scrabble as to jazz.

Daniel, the New Yorkers, and other top players from around the globe converged on Las Vegas a few weeks ago for the 2001 International Scrabble Tournament. Among them was Joe Edley, 55, from Coram, Long Island, who practices tai chi between every round and is a three-time winner of the National Scrabble Championship. Stefan Fatsis, a Brooklynite and author of Word Freak, practically a bible for those who want to learn about the subculture of tournament Scrabble players, calls Edley the “Zen master of Scrabble.” It takes calm, he says, to see the furious improvisations he must clearly envision, because “in Scrabble, every position is different, always.”

Another veteran among the New Yorkers was Robert Felt, 48, who won the national championship in 1990. Felt, a computer programmer, spouts statistics and opinions nonstop. Before the tourney began, he tagged Edley and Brian Cappelletto, a 32-year-old options trader from Chicago, as two of the strongest. “Cappelletto has the consistency,” said Felt. “Edley has the brilliance and can do something bizarre.” But Edley may have found himself at a disadvantage, because, according to Felt, Scrabble is “a young man’s game.”

The two other New Yorkers were Matt Graham, 35, from Manhattan, and Joel Sherman, 39, of the Bronx. Graham was a runner-up at the ’97 world championships and has been ranked as high as No. 2. Not all Scrabblers are meditative types like Edley. Graham is a standup comic, hyperactive in mind and body. During much of the tournament, a documentary filmmaker and several codependent journalists hung onto his every move. Sherman stayed in his own private world, listening to Tori Amos on headphones throughout the tourney. He was probably hoping it would keep him calm. A winner of the world championship in ’97, Sherman has such a notoriously nervous stomach that he calls himself “GI Joel”—the initials standing for “gastrointestinal.”

Robin Daniel had just come off a tough game—a couple of racks almost entirely of consonants, then two racks almost entirely of vowels. “There are games like that,” she muses. Daniel has to be philosophical. The wisecracking mother of two toddlers, she’s one of the few women in this nearly all-male pursuit of the world title. She fends off the male population with the same deft skill with which she pursues the game. When invited to a strip Scrabble game, for example, she saw the possibilities and remarked, “Oh, so I’m the only female player and I have a tile bag full of W‘s and F‘s and you guys have a bag full of blanks.”

All the joking around in the world couldn’t dissipate the tension in the championship room. Here, it was all about “board vision” and how to play combinations of both the American and the British Scrabble dictionaries.

As in music, the language of Scrabble, seemingly in English, is actually universal. There are top-ranked players here from more than 40 countries. Many do not speak English, yet they speak Scrabble. They recognize the combinations, play the game, and spell words in that odd language of English.

Not only were the players tense, but the entire gallery was on edge. So edgy that flash cameras were banned, whispering was frowned upon, and any noise whatsoever was highly intrusive. A teddy bear from an Australian groupie that accidentally started belting out “Waltzing Matilda” was banished from the tournament floor. A sneeze from an audience member during the 20th round jarred the concentration of 50 pairs of players.

Nothing impinged on the room—not even world events. Rashid Kahn, a physician from Pakistan who specializes in infectious diseases, noted of his homeland, “Oh, the war, it is really on the other side of the country—a couple of hours away.” And his profession? He said he works from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., practicing his medicine and devouring medical journals. Here in Vegas, however, he was focusing on his gamesmanship. “If I can place in the top 50 in the world,” he said, “I will be happy.”

Many players couldn’t stay as cool as Khan. Some came out of rounds moaning about “bad racks.” A young Aussie player insisted that he had been throwing up after every round. A fellow Aussie, hearing this, noted, “He’s young. This is a great experience for him. Losing.” It wasn’t only the thrill of victory that evoked cases of nerves. The champion stood to win $25,000, the runner-up $10,000. And there were other motives at work. One player, insisting on anonymity, said it was the “ability to crush your opponent in a socially acceptable way.” Scrabble at this level clearly is a mind game. Some players “win by reputation,” claimed Bob Lipton, a Florida champion player. The act of sitting across from top players sent some into a psychological forfeit. And that’s not to mention the sheer madness of all those letters and all those combinations of letters.

Groupies abounded, though more properly you could call them Scrabble widows and widowers who dutifully travel worldwide to see their honeys play on words, and at tourneys they’re joined by word-circus lovers. Six different documentary crews were filming this spectacle, and they were just as competitive among themselves as the players they were covering, not only constantly jostling for position but also looking in vain for dramatic scoops. At least three crews filmed Robin Daniel putting on her makeup. Sometimes they filmed one another filming one another.

Contrary to what Robert Felt said about Scrabble being more of a young man’s game, but right in line with the idea that Scrabble has a lot in common with music, one of the two finalists was Joel Wapnick, a 54-year-old music professor from Canada who was the defending champion. He faced off against Brian Cappelletto, the young options trader from Chicago, in a best-of-five match at the Venetian. Felt handicapped them this way: “Wapnick has the best word knowledge in the game, Cappelletto the best board vision and creativity.” Both were on their games. Out of the first eight plays in the first match, six of them were bingos—the term for when a player uses all seven tiles and gets a 50-point bonus.

In the final game of the match, Cappelletto opened with “O-V-A-R-I-A-N,” unusual because he used both blanks in the first rack to achieve it. Cappelletto went on to win the $25,000 title and modestly noted, “I had so many breaks in the game.”