What It Takes To Become A National Scrabble Champ
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. But this week, he's here on a Wednesday to talk about Scrabble. And that's because he is the author of "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players."
He's on the line from Addison, Texas, site of the National Scrabble Championship, and Stefan Fatsis is not just a spectator. He's actually there to compete. Hey, Stefan.
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Author, "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players"): Hey, Michele.
NORRIS: So this is the first time, I understand, that you've competed in the nationals - for five years. How'd you do?
Mr. FATSIS: As well as someone who hasn't competed in a national championship for five years would be expected to do. I played in the second division. There are five divisions. There are more than 400 players at the championship here, and I was in Division 2.
I didn't do very well. We played 31 games of Scrabble over the past five days, and I only won 13. It was my worst performance ever at a national. So I'm feeling a little low right now.
NORRIS: Well, who did win?
Mr. FATSIS: Who did win was Nigel Richards. He is a 43-year-old security analyst. He's originally from New Zealand. He lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, now. He won his second National Scrabble Championship, and he's a former world champion as well.
And Nigel is an enigmatic figure in the world of Scrabble. He's got this long, bushy beard. At the tournament, he stayed about 40 minutes away from the hotel so he could have a walk, a long walk in the morning. He also biked to the tournament some mornings.
He is considered unflappable. He likes to say he doesn't care whether he wins or loses, and he just knows all the words. He's got a brilliant mind. He won 25 out of 31 games, and the $10,000 first prize.
NORRIS: Stefan, one of the wonderful things about the book "Word Freak" is that you take us inside this world. Can you take us inside this room? Help us understand what this tournament looks and feels like.
Mr. FATSIS: It's a big ballroom. There are about, you know, 400 players, so there are more than 100 tables set up. And it's broken down into these divisions. You hear the rattling of tiles when people are playing. It's a very quiet setting. Players are very serious. Players at the very upper echelons of the game have spent years - decades, in some cases -studying words daily, and committing as many of them as possible to memory.
One of the nice things that we've seen this year is there's an influx of younger players, and that's really helped rejuvenate the game and brought sort of a new look to competitive Scrabble. It's cool to play.
NORRIS: Often when we talk, Stefan, usually on Fridays, we're talking about goals that have been scored or grand slam home runs, or fantastic layups. Was there a word at this tournament that just made everyone say wow?
Mr. FATSIS: My favorite play of the tournament was made by a 21-year-old student at the University of Washington, named Rafi Stern. He played the word finfoots - let me spell that: F-I-N-F-O-O-T-S through an O that was open on the board for a triple-triple. That was worth nine times the value of the word, plus 50 points because it was a bingo; he used all of his tiles. That was worth 203 points. And a finfoot is an aquatic bird.
NORRIS: Do we know what this bird looks like?
Mr. FATSIS: I don't. Maybe we should do you want to go online and check it out?
NORRIS: Homework assignment.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FATSIS: Post a picture on the website.
NORRIS: Stefan, always good to talk to you.
Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.
NORRIS: Get home safely. That's Stefan Fatsis. He's a sportswriter and avid Scrabble player, and also the author of "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players."
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