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Scrabble Rousing

George Sakkestad

In the world of competition Scrabble, Silicon Valley knows how to say 'aa'

By Clarence Cromwell

Outside, beachbound traffic on Highway 17 is backed up for miles, and palm trees next to the pool at the Los Gatos Lodge sway invitingly. But about 48 Scrabble players from around the United States sit hunched over their letter tiles in a tiny hotel conference room for the third day in a row. No one speaks above a mumble, and the only sound cutting through the dull heat is the swoosh of letter tiles that players scoop out of cloth bags.

Occasionally, there is a stir when a player challenges a word, causing a spectacled judge to rush breathlessly to the board. With official dictionary in hand, he will either bless the word or strike it from the game. Occasionally, if the conversation rises above a low murmur, someone will blurt out an annoyed "be quiet." As a spectator sport, it's a far cry from mud wrestling.

Only the name of the tournament gives away the players' fierce competitiveness: "Cat Fight at Los Gatos," a qualifying tournament that awards points for the national and world competitions. For those who tangle over titles and prize money in the Scrabble universe, this tiny room holds the thrill of a battlefield.

In preparation, these players have drilled at club meetings and skirmished at tournaments for months, years or sometimes decades to achieve their ranks in a four-digit rating system (similar to the system used to rank chess players). They have memorized the six-letter sets that are easiest to form into words. They have memorized lists of two-letter words (aa, for instance, is a cindery type of lava), just to get rid of those final tiles at the end of each game. One player--just for practice--wrote a detective story using only words that would be legal for Scrabble play.

Today's contest makes some players a little tense.

At one table, an explosive tantrum erupts over a sack of tiles dropped on an opponent's score sheet. At another, there is a short but intense outburst because a player started the clock before his opponent was ready.

Longtime player Lester Schonbrun says Scrabble, at this level, is war. Despite the overall calm demeanor, the players are secretly cheering whenever their closest competitors screw up.

"The atmosphere around Scrabble is just like the atmosphere around tennis or boxing," assures Schonbrun, who once ranked second in the nation. "We're out for blood."

A gray-bearded man with thick, owlish glasses, wearing a Stanford cap and Birkenstocks, Schonbrun looks like the computer programmer he used to be. One of the U.S. players invited to this year's world tournament, Schonbrun also holds the distinction of having been present when Scrabble first emerged as a sport. It was in the 1960s at the New York Chess and Checkers Club in midtown Manhattan--one of the earliest and toughest Scrabble clubs in the country.

He talks openly about the gritty days of yore, when players would play for two or three days straight, living off of hot dogs from a cart on Times Square and locking horns with New York's intellectual elite over both Scrabble and chess.

"There were a lot of very topnotch chess players there. There seems to be a carryover in board skills," Schonbrun said. The players made up strict rules to govern Scrabble games because they wanted to bet. Now, roughly the same rules govern tournaments, but there's no betting.

In 1971, Schonbrun migrated to San Francisco and became a part of what was at the time the West Coast's strongest club. It met weekly at a Zim's restaurant in San Francisco. During the 1970s, New York and San Francisco were home to many champion Scrabble players, including Schonbrun. (He will place fifth in the Cat Fight, behind a pack of mostly younger, meaner toms.)

Recently, the West Coast center of the game slid south to the Silicon Valley. Players say San Jose's two clubs are among the nation's strongest because computer hackers excel at the game.

John C. Green Jr. is a Web site programmer and a former chess player who lives in Los Gatos. He also reads grammar books for pleasure.

"Once I found the game, it was a natural thing to get into," he said. "The skills that make you good at computer programming make you good at this: memorizing obscure things and being absolutely, perfectly correct."

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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