SocietyJuly 4, 2021

A weekend with the super-brains of competitive Scrabble


Alex Casey spends a long weekend with the most passionate Scrabble players in the country, and learns more new words than you can shake a tile bag at. 

With your eyes shut, you could be trapped in a cave full of furious rattlesnakes. With your eyes open, you are very clearly in the paisley 70s womb of the Hamilton Cosmopolitan Club, as an 80-strong room of competitive Scrabblers plunge their hands into their jittery tile bags at the same time. Some frantically whisk the tiles inside the bag, as if prepping a word omelette. Others go in slowly and deliberately, a word farmer hand-delivering a word calf. All inspect their findings with the theatricality of a magician who has pulled a coin from behind your ear. 

I was the lone spectator at the New Zealand National Scrabble Tournament, and was already having the time of my life. The Cossie Cat slunk its way between the Scrabblers’ legs, oblivious to the magnitude of the situation. This was one of the first in-person national Scrabble tournaments to happen anywhere since the global pandemic hit, and you better believe there was a raffle full of luxury supermarket goods to the value of over $90 NZD to celebrate. There was tea and coffee. There were biscuits. There was a charming array of bespoke Scrabble accessories, including Scrabble tile earrings and patchwork board bags. 

Liz Fagerlund, secretary of the NZ Association of Scrabble Players, was handling last-minute draw rearrangements under a hand-drawn sign at one end of the room that said THE BOSS. Her shirt was proudly emblazoned with an acrostic Scrabble poem: Senior Citizens Refreshing Ageing Brains By Lexicon Enhancement. The first games were under way – 25 minutes on the clock for each person to make their moves – and already there was drama for The Boss to confront. Someone’s board appeared to be above regulation height. Another person’s clock had frozen. Someone else had spilled their tiles in a pile, requiring an elaborate adjudicated redraw. 

scrabble comp
Photo: Naomi Johnston

Anxious to avoid adding to the chaos, I park myself next to the laptop where people can check the validity of their challenged words. If the word is not allowed, the rules state that it has to be removed from the board and the player of the word loses a turn. If the word is permitted, the player gets five extra points for their troubles and the challenger gets a very red face. Liz tells me that the programme they use, Zyzzyva, is also the last word in the Scrabble dictionary. “You’re going to ask me what that means, aren’t you?” she says, before being summoned to fix another clock. 

It doesn’t take long for the challenges to start flowing. A woman with an unspeakably large pom-pom at the end of her pencil approaches the laptop and does a small fist pump. WUSSED is unacceptable. “Having fun?” she winked at me. I was. A steady stream of competitors get up to check. MIM is acceptable. PATEL is unacceptable. SPACIES is unacceptable. OREXI is unacceptable. WAFTERS is acceptable. A man gently types in AUDIAL. “It looks possible,” says his opponent. ACCEPTABLE. “And it is!” FITCHET is ACCEPTABLE. VIOL is ACCEPTABLE. 

Liz shuffles back over to me. “Zyzzyva,” she whispers. “A tropical American weevil.” 

At lunch, people are already frothing over some of the big plays of the morning. “I’ll never get to the bottom of Scrabble,” says Paul Lister from Christchurch, excitedly sawing into his steak, egg and chips. “Infinite combinations and infinitely fascinating.” A self-described “word freak”, Paul tells me he is fluent in French, German, Latin and currently learning te reo Māori. But there’s been one word in particular that has left him reeling. “Gil played ‘SAMIZDAT’!” he exclaims, gesticulating wildly with his steak knife. “135 points! I was dead in the water immediately.” 

Paul Lister in a post SAMIZDAT haze (Photo: Naomi Johnston)

Although it’s easy to feel intimidated when an opponent plays a long, complicated word, Paul says that challenging them is crucial. “Keep testing, keep challenging, keep pushing,” he tells me, boasting that he became so notorious for challenging in Dunedin circles that people would yell “CHALLENGE” at him across the street. Also key to Scrabble success, apparently, is playing in real life as well as online. “I’m a social player. I like to look at my opponent eye to eye,” says Paul. “For 25 minutes you are enemies across the board, and then you are best friends.”

“Just take this last game – my enduring memory will not be that I lost, it’s that Gil played that incredible, incredible word.” He puts down his knife and fork and throws his head backwards in momentary spiritual Scrabble ecstasy. “Samizdat!”

While the social and “word freak” elements of Scrabble were clear draw cards for many, other Scrabblers revealed more unique motivations. One woman picked up competitive Scrabble to manage her anxiety after the Christchurch earthquakes, and hasn’t stopped playing since. Another uses it as a mindfulness tool to distract from her stressful public servant job. Almost everyone swears it has kept their brain in better shape as they aged. “Put it this way, I’ve never known anybody who plays Scrabble that has died of dementia or Alzheimer’s,” says Paul. 

“Don’t get me wrong – they still die, but it’s always of good old-fashioned obesity or cancer. Those are my two rules for ageing: never stand in those cracks on the footpath in case you fall, and play Scrabble until you die.”

As much as I loved the memento mori motivations that the largely gold card-holding cohort spoke about with disarming ease, nobody had a Scrabble origin story quite like Awhina. Representing the Whanganui club, she’s been playing for three years as a way of staying sober. “Three years off cigarettes and alcohol, three years into Scrabble, and I haven’t looked backwards yet,” she chuckles, explaining that joining her local Scrabble club was one of the most important and positive changes she’s made in her life. 

“In a game of Scrabble you can’t randomly just go and have a cigarette or a drink of alcohol in the middle of it. And because I’m not drinking and not smoking cigarettes, I have more money now, so I can travel. I love going to all the events that I can possibly go to.”

Awhina Taikato scrabbling hard (Photo: Naomi Johnston)

When she’s not playing club Scrabble, or volunteering at her local City Mission op shop, Awhina is playing Scrabble on her phone. Constantly. Even between competition games, when others would mill around with tea and biscuits, she would stay put, determinedly prodding away at her tile-filled screen. “You need to stay focused and sharp, so it’s given me a real incentive. I want to go higher, I want to be the best that I can possibly be – I’m just out here doing something that’s not harmful to me, harmful to my family, or harmful to anybody else.”

On day two I track down the infamous Gil Quiballo, he who played SAMIZDAT and left Paul reeling. “Ah, samizdat,” he chuckles. “I don’t know the meaning. But I like the mixture of letters and the placing of letters.” Climbing his way up the B grade – and hoping to reach the A grade by the end of the weekend – Gil tells me he has been playing Scrabble since he was a nine-year-old in the Philippines. “My dad was good with words because he was in the army and would write speeches for the generals, so playing Scrabble was very good for us.”

Not one to be outdone by his father, Gil committed to learning as many new words as he could. “I read the whole dictionary back to back. Nobody could beat my dad because he was really good at words, but after a few years he couldn’t beat me.” Gil went on to represent the Philippines in the world championships, finishing 19th out of 100 players in 1999. “That was a big deal for the Philippines, I was in the paper because I could compete with people whose English language was natural to them. I had to learn how to speak English.”

A dual citizen of New Zealand and the Philippines, Gil moved here soon after the world champs in 1999. He got married and bought a house with his wife, which came with a major trade-off of its own. “I promised her that I would never play Scrabble until we paid off the house.” For over 20 years, he didn’t touch a Scrabble tile, filling his days with 12-hour shifts as a machine operator for a plastic manufacturer. “I might have looked up games on the internet but I never once played,” he grins. That all changed last year, when they finally paid off the house. 

“I asked my wife: ‘Am I all right to play Scrabble now?’ And she said: ‘Of course.’ Now I’m back in the game.”

Gil, back in the game after 20 years (Photo: Naomi Johnston)

Gil isn’t concerned about being rusty after 20 years away from the tiles. If anything, he says, he has come back as the “speed demon” of the tournament. “It’s always there. Sometimes you might let it slip for a while, you get into a slumber, but eventually you wake up,” he says. “When you are passionate about things, they never, ever really leave you.” In preparation for the weekend, he read the latest dictionary and highlighted all the new words that have been introduced in the past two decades – ENUF and WHATEVS, to name a couple. 

New words were naturally a huge conversation point, as were old words that have found themselves on the chopping block. Earlier in the year, Scrabble manufacturer Mattel banned a long list of derogatory words relating to ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Many players I spoke to disagreed with the decision, all having a similar response – they don’t see words, they just see letters. NZASP president Howard Warner says it’s a case of Mattel trying to look woke. “Their number one product is the Barbie Doll – how woke is that? You look at their directors and they are all old white men. How woke is that?”

Speaking of controversy, the only thing more intense than the exasperation towards the word ban was the glee with which Scrabblers regaled me with their naughtiest plays. “I’ll tell you a story but you probably won’t be allowed to print it,” smirked retired bus driver Malcolm Graham. “A sweet old woman was agonising over her turn, she let five minutes go before she took a deep breath and played ‘FUCKINGS’ on a triple triple for 256 points.” The filth was relentless. TITS. SHITFACED. JISM. “I’m sorry but your DILDO won’t cut the mustard,” was a sentence Liz uttered aloud, chastising one of the players for submitting his favourite naughty play too early.  

Filth, blurred for your protection (Photo: Naomi Johnston)

On the Saturday night, the debauchery leapt off the board and into real life at the social event. As the cranberry-drizzled pizzas and chilled savs rolled out, there was an announcement that left me breathless. It was time for… a sketch. Before I had time to locate the nearest emergency exit, an unbelievably tinny version of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ by Right Said Fred crackled its way through the speakers. Everyone was immediately in ribbons as a few of the Scrabble association’s finest, including The Boss Liz, began parading “down the catwalk, yeah” in Scrabble-print pyjamas. 

The comedy chaos didn’t stop there. A microphone was presented with an open invitation for people to tell a joke. Never have I seen a room quite so game for an opportunity quite so hellish. Scrabblers from Dunedin to Whangārei were stepping up and letting rip. An Irish guy walks into a bar. A Mexican fireman has twins. Three nuns get into a car accident. Festivities ended with a game where volunteers had to round up enough people to make the combined age of 194. It was simple, it was joyful, it did not require that many people to stand up. 

“You’ll notice there’s quite a few oldies because it’s hard to get young people into Scrabble,” says Liz the next day, rattling off the names of a few child prodigies who gave up upon entering their teenage years. “I think our big problem is that one young person is not enough, because they show up and feel put off – especially when they get beaten by a bunch of crusty oldies.” In countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, child Scrabblers now outnumber adults. “Other countries consider mind sports quite cool, whereas here it’s, you know, not rugby.”

It’s a struggle that Karen Richards, founder of the World Youth Scrabble Championships, knows all too well. “Teachers here haven’t realised that Scrabble has major educational benefits for kids. There’s so many good skills like logic, problem solving, risk management, time management, mathematical computation, spelling, learning how to be good losers.” In Malaysia, kids are encouraged to attend state-funded Scrabble clubs. “There is a complete difference in outlook about kids’ strengths across the world,” she says. “It’s that whole tall poppy thing.”

Keen to confirm she wasn’t a tall poppy sufferer herself, I had to ask Karen what her favourite play was. She once scored 302 points for DIAZOLES. “That’s like a whole game in a move.” 

Karen Richards eyeballs her competition. Photo: Naomi Johnston

Where day two had a cheeky Right Said Fred carnival atmosphere, day three felt like the solemn pointy end. I check back in with SAMIZDAT Gil, now neck and neck with DIAZOLES Karen at the top of the B grade. Does the speed demon have a game plan? “My strategy is, I’m happy to place second. If she wins, I’ll be happy. If I win, I’ll be happy. She’s been playing for years all around the world and this is my first tournament in years, so I’m happy either way.” 

For the final game of the weekend, I park up quietly behind Karen and Gil to see how the tiles would shake out. AWFY on a triple, ZED on a triple. Karen reveals a precious blank tile, allowing BOOGIE to becoming BOOGIES and OCTUOR to become OCTUORS. 

Then, not long after, she puts down another blank. Karen pulls ahead and Gil is left in the dust. It’s over. The final score: 461-369. They laugh and shake hands. “He’s a very worthy opponent,” she tells me. “In fairness, I got both blanks. The tiles were in my favour.” I chase after Gil, who has left the main room to look at the final scores. “She’s played around the world and this is my first tournament, so I’m happy.” He pulls out his phone and excuses himself, “Sorry, I have to go and ring my wife – she’ll be so happy.” 

With the Scrabble tiles bagged up for the very last time, Liz runs the room through the final results. Both Whangārei and the patriotic-sounding Kiwi Club have drawn for first place with 41 wins each, followed by Wellington, then Mount Albert, then Christchurch, then Whanganui. The hugest single-word score of the weekend was OUTFOXED for 203 points, and also Michael is looking for a ride to the airport. President Howard Warner, perhaps in a final act of rebellion against the wokies at Mattel, has taken out the A grade with a whopper 19 wins.

But perhaps the biggest triumph of all happened back in G grade, where Awhina from Whanganui, she of the Dirty Dogs and the constant phone Scrabble, took out the prize for biggest single-word score in her grade. The score? 167 points. The word? CREDIBLE. Back at her seat with her Dirty Dogs still firmly wrapped on, I asked her what she thought of the win. 

“Credible,” she whispered back, beaming. 

“Now there’s a meaningful word.” 

Keep going!