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Board to Death: How Scrabble Blew Its Big Moment

The 2000s were all about the tiles, from televised tournaments to indie documentaries to addictive social apps. What has changed? Start with a recession, add a racial reckoning and the #MeToo movement. ... Now shake up your bag.

Kenneth Rubin was ill. Nausea. Indigestion. Pretty much every symptom on a Pepto Bismol bottle, induced by the noxious combination of bad coffee and a rattling charter bus. Alas, with neither medicine nor a way to teleport to his destination, the New York City–based health care educator diagnosed that his best treatment on the night of Friday, Feb. 14, was to sprawl across his row and pray. Let me get to the hotel. Let me get to the boards.

“I barely made it, but I didn’t mind the craziness,” says Rubin, having arrived (mercifully, sans gastric incident) at a Residence Inn 160 miles east of Toronto. “It was crazy—but I’m crazy. How is it not crazy to spend all weekend playing Scrabble?”

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Rubin may have sought salvation from the gods of his gut on the bus, but here at the 2020 Kingston Open, he and 70-odd fellow competitors bow down to the Depression-era creation of architect Alfred Butts, with its almighty 15-x-15 grid and bag of 100 letter tiles. Like Rubin, they are not shy about their faith. Witness the idolatry inside these hotel ballroom doors: the blown-up Scrabble letters reading WELCOME TO KINGSTON; the jumbo Scrabble board backdropping a Valentine’s Day–themed photo booth. Pick a table, pull up a chair. Wait for a break in the action. (Shh ... don’t interrupt.) Everyone here has a story of devotion.

One player in Kingston, 22-year-old Jackson Smylie, says he attended just a third of his freshman-year classes at the University of Toronto, so preoccupied was he with studying Scrabble flash cards. Mad Palazzo, 61, used to battle coworkers on the boards over lunch—until she got so good that she one day beat 20 of them at once. (She was never again invited to play.) Lisa Kessler, 65, recounts her first visit, in the ’80s, to the world’s oldest Scrabble club, in Toronto, comparing herself to a gambler refusing to leave a casino: “One more game! This will be the big one!” (Today she’s a codirector of that club.)

Twenty matches—25 minutes per side on a chess-style clock—make up the official three-day tournament schedule in Kingston, but few players stop there. They arrive early in the morning, some warming up with rounds of Blitz (speed Scrabble), others poring over laminated cheat sheets of must-know words (the 2s and 3s, the J’s and Z’s); and they stay late into the night, playing for practice and pride. One afternoon, several dozen players skip their lunch break to hear Smylie’s presentation on strategy. Later he, Rubin and a few others retreat to a suite, sip beers, analyze recent games on A.I. software and debate whether retention of the 192,111-word North American tournament dictionary—279,496 for international (Collins) rules—suffers while hungover. Consensus? Not for top wordsmiths like Rubin, who the next morning backs up this thesis by finishing second (prize: $550, enough to cover his travel costs) to 45-year-old artist Max Panitch. Rubin, in the end, is undone by consecutive 50-point-bonus bingos of gerontic and geranium, which share a G and each land on a triple-word square.

The scene in Kingston, where glory was won with soft G's: "gerontic" and "geranium."

The scene in Kingston, where glory was won with soft G's: "gerontic" and "geranium."

In these ways competitive Scrabble on this continent remains the same “charming oddball subculture,” as Kessler puts it, that has permeated rec centers, chess clubs and church basements ever since the game first hit department stores in the ’50s. The linguistic gymnastics still dazzle. (At one point in Kingston, Smylie fazed an opponent by laying down topazine through an existing opa, hitting two triple-word bonuses, for 162 points.) And every event still feels like a family reunion, from the North American championships (“nationals,” in player parlance) to the midsized Kingston Open to any number of one-nighters staged in tournament directors’ backyards and living rooms.

“If you’re not a Scrabble player,” Palazzo says, “you can’t understand.”

Step away from the boards, though, and attitudes about Scrabble are more scrambled. A decade and a half ago, it enjoyed an unprecedented burst of popularity for a proprietary board game: More than 1.5 million combined viewers watched ESPN’s broadcasts of the 2003 All-Star Championship, the ’04 and ’05 nationals, and the ’06 U.S. Open, with winners making the rounds on Good Morning America and the Today show. Journalist Stefan Fatsis wrote about the scene in an '01 New York Times bestseller, Word Freak, and at least four documentaries were released, including Word Wars, which premiered at Sundance. “The golden age,” says 26-year-old Josh Sokol, another Kingston competitor.

The landscape, particularly in the U.S. and Canada, is much different now. Whereas a record 837 players vied for a prize pool of roughly $100,000 at the 2004 Nationals in New Orleans, only $40,000 or so was up for grabs among 280 entrants in Reno last year. Overall participation has also waned. In ’19, the Scrabble database Cross-Tables logged some 40,000 “rated” tournament games—played under the umbrella of the continent’s main governing body, the North American Scrabble Players Association—down from 75,000 in ’04. Part of this attrition can be explained by the emergence of several splinter organizations that siphoned off NASPA membership—but that’s just one of many issues conspiring to dampen enthusiasm at the game’s highest level.

“I’ve been playing for more than 20 years,” says Fatsis, “and I’ve never seen this much frustration and dissatisfaction with the management and direction of the competitive game.”

In 1995, before Scrabble fever had fully spiked, London hosted a televised, four-day world championship, with $28,000 on the line.

In 1995, before Scrabble fever had fully spiked, London hosted a televised, four-day world championship, with $28,000 on the line.

On one hand, the answer to the question “What the f--- happened to Scrabble?,” as one former national champion asks, reveals the sort of niche drama typical of so many oddball subcultures. On the other hand, it paints a picture entirely reflective of American society in 2020, marked by cold capitalistic cuts in the wake of the ’08 recession; political bickering and power grabs; the #MeToo movement; and the country’s ongoing racial reckoning.

Given the momentum that tournament Scrabble once had, and the high hopes that many held for its future, widespread disappointment among the word freaks is undeniable. “Things have gotten steadily worse,” Will Anderson, a 35-year-old textbook editor from Lititz, Pa., and NASPA’s top-ranked player on the North American word list, said in July. “This is probably the nadir.”

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For a glimpse into Scrabble’s golden age, go back to those 2004 Nationals. Rubin remembers. Then premed at Columbia, he had never so much as attended a multiday tournament before entering the Marriott ballroom in New Orleans. There he found vendors hawking custom Scrabble boards, timers and tile racks. He watched as camera crews from ESPN, CNN and CBS Sunday Morning patrolled the floor, grabbing closeups of the top competitors at tables cordoned off with velvet rope. The energy was palpable, and not just for the dramatic stir caused in the $25,000 final when eventual champion Trey Wright played lez, an ordinarily legal word that he was forced to rescind because it was deemed too mature for the TV audience.