MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
From the very first play of `lensmen,' slang for photographers, Dave Wiegand, took the lead in the final game on Wednesday, never relinquished it and won the 2005 National Scrabble Championship in Reno, Nevada. Covering the tournament for The Wall Street Journal and, in a blatant conflict of interest competing himself and finishing 19th out of 135 in division three, was America's Scrabble board bard, formerly the 180th top-ranked Scrabble player in North America, our own Stefan Fatsis.
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (The Wall Street Journal): Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: The new champion is Dave Wiegand. Tell us about him.
Mr. FATSIS: Dave is a 31-year-old mortgage underwriter from Portland, Oregon. He's been playing Scrabble since he was a teen-ager, previously finished second and third in the national championships and is considered a total player. He knows just about all the words, 120,000 words, that are officially good, two through nine letters in Scrabble. He's got amazing strategic sense and a very, very creative mind. I will also point out that he has a wife and two young daughters. So he has a life.
SIEGEL: Has a life as well.
Mr. FATSIS: Yes.
SIEGEL: Mr. Wiegand won the championship by winning three out of five games in a final match against Panupol Sajjayakorn, who doesn't speak much English.
Mr. FATSIS: No, he's an economics student at a university in Thailand. I would not call his command of spoken English fluent, but he was one of three Thai players to finish in the top 25 in this tournament. And this is a growing trend in Scrabble. There are thousands of kids in Thailand that play Scrabble initially to learn English. But then a few of them become obsessed just the way that we Americans do and they start devouring word lists. They memorize tens of thousands of words. They learn the strategy. Panupol is the current world champion. There's any of, like, six or seven Thai players that could win any event at any time.
SIEGEL: But it still seems almost impossible that somebody who barely speaks English could be of a championship caliber when it comes to playing Scrabble in English.
Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, it makes no sense until you start to think about Scrabble not as a game about words, but a game about letter combinations. The letters are just playing pieces. They are the tools the players use to score points in this board game. So language then becomes not about the way we communicate but about the breadth and weirdness and diversity that it contains. And Scrabble players have to just accept the fact that you can learn words out of context of their definitions.
SIEGEL: And a--someone who's really not an English speaker would be equally open to a--an unusual, bizarre word as to an everyday word.
Mr. FATSIS: Right.
SIEGEL: They're all just words.
Mr. FATSIS: You don't start thinking about whether something is logical or illogical. In one game in the finals Panupol played the word cogway, C-O-G-W-A-Y. And there were a group of us experts and other players watching in another room on closed-circuit TV and almost none of them spotted the fact that he could do this until he actually played it. And that's because it's a highly improbable combination of letters, a C, a G, a W and a Y. But to Panupol it was just another six-letter word. Sometimes the Thais, however, do get lost. When their memory fails them they'll stick an -s or an -ed at the end of a word where it doesn't belong.
SIEGEL: Yeah, cog railway, it goes up a hill. That would be it.
Mr. FATSIS: Right.
SIEGEL: Now cogway is an everyday word compared to some of what I saw on the final Scrabble board that settled this championship. J-O-L-E, an alternative spelling of jowl, and the verb to trig, T-R-I-G, which does not mean to apply the Pythagorean Theorem. It means to neaten something.
Mr. FATSIS: Right. Well, just two four-letter words to us Scrabble players, but the truth is that for many of us who do love language, you look up the words because you love the words and you love the language and you love the definitions.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.
Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis, a sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal and author of "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players."
BLOCK: To see the winning board and to learn more about the tournament and the origins of Scrabble, visit npr.org.
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