Coral Gables

No kitchen table here: Scrabble experts face off in 2019 Word Cup

Soft clattering of tiles and the reading out of scores were the only sounds permitted Saturday morning in a corner room of the Coral Gables Hyatt Regency. While vacationing guests checked into their rooms, 120 people were going head-to-head in one of the world’s most popular board games: Scrabble.

But these people take the Hasbro game to a new level. Competitive Scrabble players from more than 23 states across the U.S. and even as far away as England and Nigeria flocked to Miami for one of the biggest events of the year in the subculture of competitive wordplay, the Word Cup.

Players have studied dictionaries, practiced unscrambling endless seven-letter combinations and memorized the letter tile inventory and board layout. And when they sat down for their first competitive game on Saturday, they had 25 minutes total to play the entirety of their turns — stopping and starting the clock with each word played.

“We do a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t do at home,” said Roy Kamen, 49.

He wasn’t kidding. Special racks that are less likely to fall over, swiveling boards that allow both players to look at the crossword head on, and tiles with the letters printed — not engraved — that prevent players from feeling for certain letters or coveted blank tiles are the equipment that Saturday’s players dealt with. Chess clocks keep time, and points are deducted for each additional minute a player takes to finish the game.

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Players have 25 minutes to complete all of their turns in each Scrabble game, stopping and starting the timer with every move. Julia Ingram Julia Ingram

A play on the World Cup, the Word Cup consists of 31 one-on-one games played across several days (this tournament runs through Wednesday). Some Word Cup players have been on the competitive Scrabble circuit for more than 30 years, traveling nationwide for anywhere between two and 10 tournaments a year. Many played for years before they began competing.

“It’s like an orgasmic experience for me,” said Cynthia Seals, 65, who came to the tournament from Atlanta. “I just love playing.”

From “moseying” to “toastier” to “ideation,” players competed to rack up the most points per word, trying their hardest to achieve the 50-point bonus that comes with playing all seven letters at once. Budgeting their 25 minutes or taking advantage of their opponents’ playing time, Scrabble players employed a variety of strategies to track and plan moves. When they weren’t playing, competitors vied for Scrabble-inspired items in a silent auction. Bids stacked up for collectible tiles, strategy books, Scrabble board-inspired socks.

Kamen organized the tournament with his wife, Maddy Kamen, who he met playing Scrabble. Marriage within the Scrabble circles is typical — Roy and Maddy were one of about 10 “Scrabble couples” present just at the Coral Gables tournament.

The community also means that players see familiar faces, bumping into the same people at tournaments across the country.

“It’s like a dysfunctional family reunion,” said Rucha Gupta, 55.

Among the longtime players who flanked the tables on Saturday was Michelle Davis, who has been playing Scrabble since 1992.

“They’ve added a lot more stupid words since then,” said Davis. A gaggle of other players gathered around her to weigh in on the changing dictionary, which has since adapted to include various online lingo and the two letter variation of the word “okay.”

“’Ok’ is not okay,” said Bruce Shuman, 62.

“I was trying to play unibrow for 12 years,” Davis added. “They finally added it as a word.”

Scrabble legend David Gibson was also competing in the Word Cup. Currently ranked as the No. 1 player in North America, Gibson, 68, started playing Scrabble when he was 6 years old. In 1983, “all of this sudden, this love of words came over me,” he said.

“I started getting up around 5 in the morning to read the entire newspaper, cover to cover, to learn vocabulary words,” Gibson said. Two years later, he stumbled across an article on a tournament, introducing him to the world of competitive Scrabble.

He won his first three games in the tournament, achieving the highest cumulative score by the time the players broke for lunch.

“I play very defensively,” Gibson said. “I try to cut down on my opponents’ options.”

Gibson goes over his notes from each game twice, entering each of his racks into his computer to see what moves he could have played. He was particularly proud of having doled out all seven of his letters on an L to play “alighted,” which he pointed out was the only word he could have played to get rid of his entire rack in one move.

Word Cup is a nonprofit tournament, meaning that all of the entry fees go back into the prize, aside from expenses. Roy and Maddy seek to reward the top 25 percent of players with varying prizes. Organizing the tournament allowed Maddy and Roy to play in it themselves, while Steve Pellinen, another longtime player, directed the tournament.

“It’s a perfect game,” Pellinen said. “In Scrabble, after the first two words, it’s different from any game that’s ever been played before.”

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