MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now, to our regular Friday sports commentator, Stefan Fatsis, covering a game almost as cutthroat as pro hockey, a board game where the players are known to throw around a few elbows, as well as some high-value consonants. I'm talking, of course, about Scrabble.
Stefan joins us now from the floor of the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, where he's not playing Scrabble this weekend, he is coaching it.
STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Michele.
NORRIS: You're at the 2009 National School Scrabble Championship. Tell us all about this.
FATSIS: Well, I'm in a ballroom with about 200 kids from around the country. They're in fifth to eighth grade. You can hear in the background, they're getting ready to play. They're going to play six games over the next two days in teams of two, and they play in teams of two to help encourage cooperation and reduce pressure on individual players.
And the top two teams are going to meet in the final tomorrow. It's going to be shown on Closed Circuit TV. The moves will be shown in real time online so you can play at home. And the first prize in this tournament is $10,000.
NORRIS: This sounds very exciting. Now, you have more than a professional interest in the event. Should we call you coach from now on?
FATSIS: Yeah, that's mandatory from now on, Michele.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FATSIS: I've got four kids, sixth graders from the Janney Elementary School in Washington where my daughter is a first grader and where I started a Scrabble club last year. I get about 20 to 30 kids a week playing Scrabble after school. I help them with spelling, math, spatial relations, strategic thinking, and it's a lot of fun.
NORRIS: Now, we're accustomed to the National Spelling Bee where kids perform feats of linguistic ability that seem to boggle the mind. Is Scrabble much the same? Are all the players at the school championship memorizing thousands of words the way that an obsessed adult player might do?
FATSIS: Yeah, some of these kids absolutely are. It's not as intense as the spelling bee. You don't see stage parents drilling kids on seven-letter words that are in the official Scrabble dictionary. But most of the kids here do know the basics, the 101 two-letter words, the Q-words that don't need a U. A lot of them play Scrabble online. About 20 of these kids have played in adult tournaments, and some are totally hooked.
There's one player here, an eighth grader named Joey Krafchick from Atlanta, he's played in more than two dozen adult tournaments, and he's on the verge of an expert level rating.
NORRIS: Now, Stefan, I understand that when the players arrived there in Providence, they got a big surprise, two messages from two very important people.
FATSIS: Yeah. Well, two very different people. I'll start with the comparatively impressive one. It was from Barack Obama. And Barack and Michelle Obama are Scrabble players, and the executive director of the National Scrabble Association, John Williams, reached out to the White House, and they agreed to send along a note from the president.
And Mr. Obama said, my family and I know from experience that Scrabble requires creativity, finesse and most importantly, a love of learning and language. I know that passion is within each of you, and I hope it inspires all of your life's endeavors.
NORRIS: Very nice. Stefan, they also got another letter. And judging from this recent promo that ran on ESPN, this letter came from a guy who plays Scrabble by his own rules.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Mr. SHAQUILLE O'NEAL (Professional Basketball Player): Shaqtastic, 29 points.
Unidentified Man #1: Um, how did you get so many Q's?
Mr. O'NEAL: Don't worry about it.
NORRIS: Shaqtastic. That's Shaquille O'Neal of the Phoenix Suns.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FATSIS: I love that promo. And I love what Shaq's letter says, that the competitors here are showing kids everywhere that it's cool to be smart and use your brain, that it's possible to win money, appear on television and have fun in all kinds of ways.
And the Phoenix Suns, Shaq's team, donated a jersey signed by Shaq, and the winner of it will be the team that makes the highest play using the letter Q, predictably.
NORRIS: Oh, sounds great. Well, Stefan, thanks so much. Good luck to everyone there, and good luck to you and your team.
FATSIS: Thanks a lot, Michele.
NORRIS: That's Stefan Fatsis. He's the author of "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players."