Helen Joffe opens the game. In the center of the Scrabble board, she puts down the letters: W I M P. Then she turns the board around so I can read it. No kidding, I think. Is this a joke? Or is Joffe simply demonstrating her uncanny ability to read an opponent?
This is my first game of Scrabble with the local Scrabble club, which meets weekly in the dining room of a residence for the elderly near Lafreniere Park. My opponent is the club director. According to the rating system created by the National Scrabble Association (NSA), Joffe is an expert player and among the best in Louisiana.
At my elbow sits Bill Giblin, another local expert-rated Scrabbler, who is coaching me. Together they are trying to teach me the experience of competitive Scrabble, which in spirit resembles nothing like the game I played on family vacations when I was a child. Despite Giblin's able assistance, I am losing by a wide margin to Joffe's merciless style of play.
"Somebody is not helping us," says Giblin, as things go from bad to worse.
"Well, somebody is putting down some very low-scoring words, so somebody better watch his mouth," replies Joffe. She pulls tiles from a red velvet bag embroidered on one side with the words "I love this game" and on the other side with "I hate this game."
"OK, this woman has made a pact with the devil," says Giblin as Joffe puts down a "bingo" -- a word that uses all seven of the tiles on her rack. The word lands on a triple word score, too. At least I think it does. Things move quickly. We are playing with a timer, and I am not always sure what is going on. Suddenly I see an opening for T A V E R N A playing off a T that Joffe had placed. Giblin is only marginally pleased with this -- it's not a brilliant play -- and he prods me to make it plural with an overlooked S.
At the next club meeting, Giblin will collar me in the parking lot to discuss this game. For a week, his mind had been gnawing on T A V E R N A S like a dog worrying a bone. "We really should have played T S A R E V N A. It would have gotten a lot more points," Giblin says. "That would have won us the game, which would have been great. Especially with Helen. She would have loved that."
For her part, Joffe later reveals that she can't stand losing to Giblin -- the thought of it nearly makes her growl. "Because he can be awfully smug about it. When I win, he says I was lucky to pull such good tiles. But when he wins, it's because of his superior word knowledge."
But now, as Joffe closes in for the kill in this game against me, I look back and forth between her and Giblin and try to figure out their relationship. They do not immediately appear to have much in common. Joffe is a legal secretary/paralegal and loves musical theater. Giblin is a retired cop/forensic chemist and likes watching TV. Their snippy patter that whips across the board as fast as they hit their timers certainly sounds adversarial, and yet Giblin acknowledges that Joffe is a nurturing club director. He appreciates that she brings in study guides to help him and the other club members learn more words, develop sharper strategy, and just play the game better. Even with all the light jabs, they're still friends.
Giblin and Joffe's weekly gathering is part of a network of more than 200 clubs across North America sanctioned by the NSA, which ranks players on a scale of 0 to 2,000, with "experts" ranked at 1,600 and higher. (Joffe is ranked 1,628; Giblin is 1,614.) These clubs support tournament playing, which culminates with the bi-annual National Scrabble Championship, which this year is taking place July 31Aug. 5 in New Orleans.
As it's played in these tournaments, this staple of the family rec room has turned into something much more serious. Top-rated players would cringe at the word "hobby." Yet, the social drapery still clings to Scrabble. Even in the official clubs, it's still an opportunity for people to get together and play a game. There's a lot of kibitzing across the board. Some people eventually become friends. It's inevitable. Scrabble brings to light the truism that friends can be held together by competition, as much as they can by fondness, moral support or good conversation. The terrain of Scrabble friendships requires that, while you may wish the best for your friend, you must also want to beat your friend.
YET THERE IS ONE FRIENDS MISSING from this Scrabble Club meeting. Of all the tournament Scrabble players in Louisiana, Keith Savage has the highest NSA rating at 1,770. He's also the 133rd highest-ranked player in North America. You can read about Savage on the National Scrabble Association Web site, which posts names and brief biographical information about players registered to compete in the national championship. But try to find Savage through the local Scrabble Club, you get nowhere. No one has a phone number. They haven't seen him in a long time. No one knows why. "He's like Howard Hughes in his declining years," Joffe remarks cryptically.
Club member Maneck Contractor finally spells it out. "Scrabble is like an extended family," she says. "And Keith is a little bit like our difficult child. You know, every family has one. And we would always welcome him back because he belongs to us."
Contractor is pretty sure Savage stopped coming to club meetings because his car stopped working, and he didn't have any way of getting to Kenner from his home on the West Bank, where he lives with his mother and grandmother. Because no one has his phone number, no one could call and offer a ride.
Contractor is responsible for bringing Savage into the Scrabble club in the first place. She met him at a tournament and thought he was such a good player that he should come practice with the others. Contractor is pretty good at making people her friends, but Savage was too elusive. Although he was coming to club meetings, he always made it clear he would talk about Scrabble and nothing else. Still, Contractor is proud to say that their difficult child is the highest-rated player in Louisiana.
"Until the national championship," Joffe corrects her. Her own Scrabble goal is to become the state's highest-rated player. She believes Savage is the only thing standing in her way.
It wasn't always like this. At one time, Joffe and Savage were friends. "I mentored him," she says. When Savage first came to Scrabble club, he had a lot of raw talent but lacked understanding of the game's finer points. Under Joffe's tutelage, he started winning more games and doing well in tournaments. His NSA rating soared. Then he stopped coming to the club meetings.
Although they have not spoken in quite some time, Joffe says she'd like to send a message out there. "I would like to let Savage know there is someone ready to take his spot," she says. "Hey fella, you're not holding onto that forever."
THE NSA'S RATING SYSTEM GOVERNS all official Scrabble clubs and regional tournaments, so a player's NSA rating goes up or down depending on how that player does in a tournament. If you lose against someone with a lower rating than yours, then your own rating goes down, while the lower-rated player will get an increase in points.
This system creates a necessary hierarchy, which isn't always pleasant. Lower-rated players complain that some top-rated players treat them as if they were stupid or nonexistent. The system certainly throws gasoline on the fires of competition because, as a player's rating moves higher, the more aggressively he protects his rating. Many refuse to play tournaments with lower-rated players because they don't want to chance that by some quirky turn of the tiles they might get beaten and lose points. Luck is a constant part of the game, so not even the best player can depend solely on expertise to win.
Because luck belongs to everybody, players who want to enter the elite devote all their time to gaining expertise. Time spent on career, families, pets or vacations is simply time NOT spent on Scrabble. Some of the elite Scrabblers do work out the calculus of their lives in this manner. In his 2001 book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, journalist Stephan Fatsis characterizes the legendary players Joel Sherman and Matt Graham with great admiration for their superlative skill, even as he describes their misfit existence outside of Scrabble.
These are extreme examples, of course. There are national champions who appear, at least outwardly, to function normally in non-Scrabble society. However, it does appear that greatness in Scrabble requires a certain monk-like devotion to the game.
"Many of these people are like house plants," observes local player Bill Clark. "They have these little lives that I do not envy at all. As far as that elitism goes, well it may look like snobbery, but really they are just socially inept."
Clark can speak with some authority about elite Scrabblers because he used to be one. Eight years ago, Bill Clark had an NSA rating in the mid-1900s, which ranked him as the 44th highest rated player in North America. His tournament playing has slacked off in the past few years, and now his rating has gone down to the 1600s, in the same vicinity as Helen Joffe. They, along with Bill Giblin, are ranked among the top 300 players in a field of 10,000 -- a very respectable placement but not among the elite. Clark says he's not "tournament tough" right now, so he is preparing for the national championship by going to regional tournaments, most recently in Dallas. Although many train by playing against a computer or by themselves, Clark feels that the best way to get ready for a Scrabble tournament is to play under tournament conditions, against a live opponent.
True enough, says Scrabble guru Joe Edley, who is the NSA director of clubs and tournaments, and the game's only two-time national champion. Tournament play teaches you how to deal with the opponent sitting across the board. "There are very few players who don't take advantage of who their opponent is. Or who they think their opponent is," he says. "You do play the person to a certain degree."
Edley also points out that there are advantages to training by playing Scrabble by yourself, when you can see your own game as your future opponents will see it. "This gives you the experience of knowing your opponent and knowing how your opponent thinks," Edley says. "I can't emphasize enough the importance of that."
Either way, Clark is not sweating it too much. He'd like to acquit himself with dignity at the national championship, but he's not willing to make undue sacrifices to regain his elite status.
Don't get him wrong. Clark studies word lists and anagrams and tries to memorize the Scrabble dictionary. He likes to compete, and he likes to win, which he often does. But the retired BellSouth executive also likes giving time to his children, travel, and his other hobbies. "The quandary always is how much fun do you want to have versus winning. For me Scrabble was always a game," he says, contrasting his own life with that of the elite players. "Even when I reached my highest height, I was never that weird."
WHEN I ASK BILL CLARK to help me find Keith Savage, he too comes up empty. "Well you know, Scrabble players tend to be interesting," he says. "He is probably the most interesting of our bunch."
The more I look for Savage, the more the mystery deepens. I try a few Savages in the phone book, hoping to find his mother. Nothing. I put in a call to the NSA figuring they must know something about him. Executive director John Williams doesn't personally know Savage, but he provides a phone number from the registration files. When I call the number, however, I get a recording that says, "This number is not in service for incoming calls." Confused, I call Williams again.
"That means he's a Scrabble player," says Williams. "Doesn't surprise me at all."
"THEY THINK WE ARE IDIOTS," says Maneck Contractor one evening at the Scrabble club meeting, and she flips the end of her nose with her forefinger just to bring the point home. "When they hear we are from Louisiana, they think we can't play the game."
Originally from Bombay, Contractor introduces herself to me by emphasizing, "I am Mrs. Maneck Contractor. I always have to be sure to put that because when people see my name written out they believe that I am a gentleman and not a lady."
Contractor has a habit of blurting out what her Scrabble friends call "Maneck-isms." With the "idiots from Louisiana" remark, Contractor is simply saying what everyone else is thinking: The national championship in New Orleans will be an onslaught of Yankees -- elite Scrabblers tend to be concentrated in the Northeast -- who will undoubtedly look down their noses at the Southerners.
Really, Contractor's habit of speech is just a tendency to be cheerfully blunt, no harm intended. Joffe does a dead-on impersonation of her friend's Indian accent, when she repeats something Contractor had said to her, "I never think of you as fat. I only think of your personality!" The comment still makes Joffe burst into operatic laughter.
It's not hard to imagine Joffe's performances in Slidell Little Theatre, where she sang the roles of Mama Rose in Gypsy and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. She also frequently gets the role of the wicked witch. "Don't know why that would happen," she says, rolling her eyes. "Maybe it was typecasting."
Contractor, Joffe and another club member Inez Kerth tell stories on each other, tales of their adventures traveling to Scrabble tournaments together. They even have a name for themselves. "We are the Southern Belles," says Contractor.
"No, we are the GRITS Girls. Girls Raised In The South," interrupts Joffe, never raising her eyes from the Scrabble board in a game she is playing against Giblin.
"You see how good Helen is," says Contractor. "She can play two games simultaneously, win them both, and then still control all the conversations around her."
Joffe enjoys being good. She's entitled, because she taught herself everything she knows. She dropped out of school in the ninth grade out of economic necessity, and then married at age 18 with two children following soon after. At a young age, she started going to the library to give herself the education she needed in order to work in a law office. She also gained a breathtaking store of word knowledge.
She started playing Scrabble in 1968 with her first husband because he was a chess champion, and she couldn't beat him at that. Years later, she is still playing, but not with her family. "My son said to me, Mom, I don't get in the ring with Mike Tyson, and I don't play Scrabble with you.'"
Back in the day, Joffe thought she wanted to be a national champion. But like Clark, she realized she wanted to concentrate on other important matters in her life, namely her children, her assortment of cats, and one dog. Joffe does think of this game as a hobby -- and yet she knows deep in her heart that she is no less talented than those elite Scrabblers and could beat them on any given day. Every night, she practices by playing Scrabble online with players from around the world. "I just like to come home after a long day at work, take off my bra, put on my nightgown, and play Scrabble," she says. "It's my therapy."
Contractor tells the story of how she first got to know Joffe years ago when they started playing competitive Scrabble. She and Inez Kerth had offered Joffe a ride to a tournament in Jackson, Miss. But Joffe insisted on going in her own car, even though it was having engine trouble. On the way home, they found Joffe stranded on the highway beside her broken-down car and offered her a ride home.
"She couldn't believe strangers would be so nice to her. That's when we cracked her and made her be our friend," Contractor finishes triumphantly.
At club meetings, Contractor has taken on the role of hostess. During one Wednesday gathering, she remembers to bring cake and ice cream for Joffe's birthday. She lights the candles and makes everyone stop playing Scrabble for a moment to sing "Happy Birthday." Joffe cuts the cake for club members who have already resumed staring at their Scrabble boards. Giblin lifts his head from his game to say, "At my birthday I want to have a cheese log so ... I ... can ... ."
"Cut the cheese. Oh, ha, ha, ha." Joffe answers.
"What kind of joke is that?" demands Contractor.
Joffe gets back to club business, seeing that everyone is settled with someone to play against, before sitting down to her own game. "I'm not sure what is happening over there with that clash of Titans," she says, indicating the table behind her where Giblin and Clark are playing a game. Giblin wears a button that features the word "puling" with a red slash through it. The room is quiet for a time, save for the clicking of Scrabble tiles. Every so often one Bill can be heard muttering to the other Bill, "You stink, Bill." Just another Wednesday night at Scrabble club.
AFTER THE NSA'S FIRST PHONE NUMBER for Keith Savage didn't get me anywhere, I try again. This time, another staffer at NSA's New York office unearths an entirely different phone number. This one does get someone named Savage on the phone. He does indeed play Scrabble and would be happy to meet me to talk about it. As simple as that.
When I pull up to the one-story house in Harvey, a man dressed in black waits outside, smoking a cigarette. I can see where Joffe got Howard Hughes, but it's not really an apt comparison. Savage does have the pallor of someone who is rarely exposed to natural light. His long hair reaches to the middle of his back and he has a long, uncultivated beard. But coupled with his deep-set gaze and what I know so far about his devotion to Scrabble, all that reminds me more of a passionate monk than a kooky millionaire. He's more Rasputin than Howard Hughes.
He invites me into the house, where he introduces me to his grandmother, who retreats into the kitchen. The blinds are drawn against the afternoon sun, and in the dim light I can see an altar to the Blessed Mother. Savage leaves for a moment and then returns with a Scrabble board filled with words. This is the game he had played that morning, and he sets it down on the couch between us. "All right, let's talk Scrabble!" he says with guileless delight.
Over the next hour, we discuss his beliefs and practice of Scrabble. Savage describes his arrival at a mystical experience of the game. He began playing seven years ago as a "tourist" and recalls how Contractor brought him to Scrabble Club, "where I promptly got toasted," he says. From that point he decided he would do whatever he could to play the game better. Toward that end -- and to prepare for the national championship -- he covers about a hundred pages a day in the Scrabble dictionary, trying to memorize the more than 120,000 words that are acceptable for play. He practices all of the usual strategies that other players do, but Savage says he has come to trust a Scrabble skill within himself that no one has ever taught him.
"I'm an instinct player," he says. "In every game there is one move that is absolutely the right play. And every single computer simulation will say that is not the right move, but computers do not tell the tale. This is just a sense that I get, when my game is really on, I can make one great move like that, and the game just flows from there. Whoosh! It's like getting into the back of a limo and the game just carries you."
Great athletes often talk about entering a similar "zone" when they're in competition, a mysterious and ecstatic state where the customary sense of striving dissolves into effortless perfection.
"The dancer and the dance become one. That exists in Scrabble, too," says Savage. "How? Every philosopher in the world is still working on that. Where does preparation meet opportunity meet luck meet simpatico meet gumbo. I just don't know. To me utilization is better than understanding. I have no idea how I digest my food, either. I just know it works."
A lot of his tournament training now consists of teaching himself the patience to slow down and wait for that one great move to manifest itself. To do that, he chooses to play by himself. "Just this guy," he says, holding up his left hand. "Against this guy," he says, holding up his right hand. Then he gives goofy voices to his hands. "Hey, how did this guy beat me? Oh boy is he good!" he says, while making movements with his hands as if they were puppets.
This morning, Left Hand won by 90 points with one of those instinct moves. Right Hand opened with Z O E A L. Then Left Hand chose inexplicably to pass on a 24-point opportunity and keep the letters N A X on its rack. At first, this choice appeared to go against all good common Scrabble sense. However, it created a chance for Left to play L A X A T I O N in the next turn for 94 points. From there, it was just another smooth limo ride for Left Hand.
"This guy played a good game," says Savage holding up Right Hand. "But this guy did something brilliant," he says, holding up Left Hand. "And that made the difference."
Savage spends all of his days in this manner. He's thinking about Scrabble when he wakes up in the morning and when he goes to sleep at night. If he's not actually moving tiles around on a board, he plays imaginary games in his head, visualizing the whole board, "trying to picture an intelligence that is better than mine." He says he does have friends, but he hasn't spent time with them in six months and won't until after the national championship.
Savage refuses to discuss what he used to do for a living before he became a full-time Scrabbler. He does hint that he plans to have a career in Scrabble after the national championship.
"I am not going to the nationals just to show up. I am going there to win. I see this as a chance to be the best in the world at something. Besides, my Olympic marathon career got cut short," he says with a raspy laugh.
When I ask Savage why he doesn't play with the Scrabble club any more, he says he is not ignoring them or anything like that. The club introduced him to his life's work, but now he has created a regimen for himself that does not require other people. "I do all my preparation in isolation because there are no personalities in Scrabble," he says. "There is the game, and you play it. I knew a point had come where a decision had to be made. Either I would stay there or do what it takes to be the best Scrabble player. That is my focus. And I am the best in this state. No doubt about that in my mind. But I play alone to get to a place of perfect refinement in my game. Then break that out at the nationals and test it against the greatest players there are. If I've done it right, I'll have success."
In addition to all that, Savage says he's staying away from clubs and tournaments and other Scrabble players -- keeping his greatness under wraps -- for strategic reasons, until he gets to the national championship. "It's always an advantage if your opponent underestimates you."
AT MY LAST SCRABBLE CLUB MEETING, I sit in on a game between Lila Crotty, who identifies herself as a "retired computer geek," and Waheed Thompson, who comes from Nigeria and says that Scrabble helped him learn English. Theirs is a cordial game, interspersed with light gossip about a player they know who has cheated in a tournament by hiding a Q up his sleeve. Lila is winning.
"I must abort this game," Thompson says softly, gazing with despair at the board, which, from his point of view, is upside down. Not only is he fluent in English as a second language, but he can also read it upside down. He plays most of his games that way.
"I think it's unwise to play upside down," says Crotty. "You miss things."
"Ah, I see the hope of catching up with you," declares Thompson. He puts down A F R I T, which is an evil spirit from Arabian mythology. "A 17-year-old boy beat me at the nationals with that. I challenged, but it was good."
"Those do tend to stick in your mind," says Crotty, who then thanks Thompson for saving her the trouble of challenging it in this game. Chit-chat can cost you points sometimes.
Club member David Motley is hanging around the table watching and learning. Motley is a relatively new player, a good player, who's getting better and also getting into the spirit of Scrabble. Earlier he had indicated that he plays Scrabble "for love of the words, for the elegant harmony of the board, for the visceral satisfaction of crushing an opponent." Recently Motley upped his rating when he did well at a tournament in Arkansas and took home $130 in winnings.
"Plus I really liked shutting out that smart-aleck kid," says Motley.
Crotty and Thompson laugh and groan. They all know this infamous 14-year-old kid Scrabbler, widely known as a nuisance player that everyone loves to beat.
Motley watches as I take notes and asks, "Is there any way at all we can come out of this not looking like a bunch of nerds?" I assure him this is unlikely. But the question suggests that Motley, though new at the game, has the instincts of a potential champion: Know yourself and know your opponent.
- Helen Joffe plans her next killer move. A veteran of community theater and the director of the local Scrabble club, Joffe hopes to become the state's highest-rated player next month.
- "Trying to picture an intelligence better than mine," is how top-rated Scrabbler Keith Savage describes the solitary nature of his practice.
- Last year's championship in San Diego drew 700 players; this year, more than 800 competitors are coming to New Orleans.
- Retired cop Bill Giblin is among the local Scrabblers who are ranked among the top 300 players in a North American field of 10,000.
- Waheed Thompson and Inez Kerth face off during a recent Scrabble Club meeting. Thompson, a native of Nigeria, says Scrabble helped him learn English.