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.
Author:
Publish date:

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?”

dCOVscrabble_V

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.”

***

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.

“The sights, the sounds were overwhelming,” says Rubin. “Hearing the rattling of tiles from all those players, in a room so big that I couldn’t see how far it went. ... It was like being at Disney World for the first time.”

The only comparable period of excitement around Scrabble took place a half-century earlier, after Macy’s started stocking the game in 1952. Newspapers chronicled ad hoc tournaments in Chicago and Brooklyn, Terre Haute and Jamaica, among seventh-graders and “suburban society matrons.” In ’54, White Sox manager Paul Richards brought a board and two dictionaries to spring training in Florida, where he reportedly hustled writers for $2 per game.

Scrabble stood for Americana when dancers Gower and Marge Champion posed at a board in 1955, in the game’s first wave of popularity.

Scrabble stood for Americana when dancers Gower and Marge Champion posed at a board in 1955, in the game’s first wave of popularity.

An organized tournament community took longer to develop, but as boards zoomed off shelves—more than 20 million sold by Christmas 1973—Scrabble’s then corporate owner, Selchow & Righter, wised up and chartered the Association of Scrabble Crossword Game Players (later the National Scrabble Association, or NSA), sanctioning official clubs and publishing a newsletter and rules handbook. Pilot events were held in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and there was a New York City–wide championship of qualifiers from all five boroughs.

Then, as now, the health of competitive Scrabble depended on how much the game’s owner was willing to invest. An especially dark period dawned under Coleco (maker of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls and ColecoVision video games), which bought Selchow & Righter in 1986, canceled the ’87 Nationals and soon after filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But it wasn’t long before Hasbro purchased the license and began pumping cash into tournament play. The bulk of an annual budget (which topped $1 million during this heyday) was earmarked for the nationals, where players attended open-bar receptions and noshed on free food between matches. The rest went to bankrolling the NSA, an outfit of half a dozen or so employees in Greenport, Long Island, which distributed the newsletter, maintained player ratings, managed the tournament calendar and oversaw p.r. efforts.

To focus on the boardroom, though, is to ignore the crucial role of those at the board. From Kingston, Jamaica, to Kingston, Ontario, tournament Scrabble would be nowhere without its most passionate players. Every rating system and pairing software employed at tournaments, every anagramming app and A.I. analysis program used for studying, every high-quality board and extra-long rack—each was the product of grassroots innovation. User-generated word lists led to Merriam-Webster’s first Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary in 1978, and hawk-eyed enthusiasts scoured that book for mistakes to fix for a second edition.

When corporate support has slowed, players have picked up the slack. This was true when they organized an unofficial nationals event in 1987 and, as Fatsis wrote in Word Freak, “shamed” Coleco into donating $5,000 in prize money. And it was true two decades later, in 2007, when ESPN stopped airing adult tournament Scrabble and the Hasbro-funded NSA decided to skip that same year’s nationals, leading two well-known competitors—Chris Cree, then the NSA’s ombudsman, a liaison for player complaints; and John Chew, the NSA’s webmaster—to organize a Players Championship.

The following year, a revived nationals event staged in Orlando featured 650-plus players and over $86,000 in prize money. Good vibes flowed and the future looked bright, owing to a new crop of talented young competitors who had discovered the game at its Word Freak peak. (Four of the six division winners that year were under 21.) Hasbro rolled out its usual array of perks—but, given what would follow, those 2008 Nationals track today less like a lavish celebration and more like a last supper.

Ubiquity? Ross’s monkey swallowed one of the famous tiles in a 1995 episode of Friends.

Ubiquity? Ross’s monkey swallowed one of the famous tiles in a 1995 episode of Friends.

As one former Hasbro executive says, “They didn’t completely wipe out [tournament Scrabble] from there, but it was death by a thousand cuts.”

The invitations were ... vague. Hasbro would cover all travel expenses and lead a tour of the Scrabble factory in East Longmeadow, Mass., followed by a “ground-breaking summit” about the game’s future. Otherwise, the 14 tournament players summoned to Hasbro Gaming headquarters in December 2008 could only speculate about what lay in store. “Some people were thinking it was some sort of press junket,” says Chew. “I could see the writing on the wall.”

Sure enough, the morning after a welcome dinner at the Basketball Hall of Fame in nearby Springfield, the guests filed into a boardroom where a team of execs broke the news: Hasbro would all but cease funding tournament Scrabble. The NSA would still exist, but only to oversee School Scrabble, a longstanding program for growing the game at the youth level. Hasbro would still pitch in some prize money for the winner of the national championship each year, but the players were on their own to figure out pretty much everything else.

“There was stunned silence,” Chew recalls. “The rest of the day was a little bit of shock.”

Viewed through the business lens of a billion-dollar company, the decision made sense. Only a few thousand tournament players were active in North America, all of whom already owned their own boards and therefore made little meaningful impact on retail sales. (Hasbro doesn’t own the international rights to sell the game, having lost a bid in the mid-’90s to toy rival Mattel.) In the wake of a recession, the competitive scene simply wasn’t worth saving. “[Hasbro] recovered quickly,” the former executive says, “but the die had been cast on Scrabble.”

From the players’ perspective, Hasbro bigwigs had never seemed to match their enthusiasm for the pastime anyway. (Oft-cited complaints include the use of incorrect tile letter values on Scrabble merchandise, such as game boxes and pajamas, and a slowness by the company to embrace an evolving digital-games space, exemplified by the decision earlier in 2008 to sue a wildly popular Facebook app, Scrabulous, for trademark infringement while rolling out a lackluster replacement for its half-million daily users.) So, despite trepidation about breaking free of the corporate teat—“There was some, Oh, my God, can we do this? ” says Palazzo, who attended the summit—many were eager to take the royalty-free license to use the Scrabble trademark and chart their own course.

The earliest sketches of that course were drafted at the summit in East Longmeadow, from which Cree and Chew emerged as copresidents of what would come to be known as NASPA. Cree, then 54 and running a forklift-sales operation, incorporated the nonprofit in his home state of Texas, paying insurance fees and startup costs himself. And a long-term budget projection from April 2009 forecasted a starry, albeit naive future. By ’15, annual income was predicted to reach $1.9 million, including $500,000 in nonprofit donations (“Pew Trust, Knight Foundation, etc.”) and $500,000 in corporate sponsorships (“Nike, Coca-Cola, etc.”).

SI Daily Cover

That optimism didn’t last. Some members took umbrage with newly instituted player fees for NASPA tournaments, which had the effect of cutting into prize pools. (Cree justified such changes by citing a desire to amass a “war chest” of $250,000 that, as players recall him saying, would protect NASPA in the event of financial emergency, such as a lawsuit.) Others had philosophical concerns. Cree, with his background in business and as ombudsman, had seemed a natural choice to lead the game into the new era, but he quickly chafed anyone hoping for collaborative decision-making. “His model was: It’s my company, and everyone is a potential customer,” says Steve Pellinen, another summit attendee, alluding to Cree’s brash, top-down, loyalty-first leadership style (which seven current and former Scrabble players likened, unflatteringly, in interviews, to that of Donald Trump). “Most players didn’t care. But he might’ve been taken by surprise with how many weren’t O.K.”

By 2010, less than two years into its existence, NASPA was already dealing with another major schism, over the issue of word lists. Top players, driven by the allure of international events where they could lay tiles against the world’s best and challenge themselves with the more expansive of Scrabble’s two main dictionaries, began migrating to Collins competition, which is the standard in almost every country outside the U.S. and Canada.

That same year, a new governing body split off in frustration, the egalitarian mission of the new Word Game Players’ Organization (WGPO) reflected by a possessive apostrophe, whereas NASPA’s Players had none. As popular tournament directors from the West Coast and the Midwest jumped ship, players in those areas followed. Rather than reconcile with the upstart outfit, Cree took a hard-line approach, defrocking NASPA directors, including Pellinen, who dared host WGPO tournaments or serve on their subcommittees.

The damage was stark. From 2010 to ’12, according to Cross-Tables, player appearances in NASPA-sanctioned events dropped 20%, and NASPA-rated games fell 23%. Only about half of this dip, however, can be accounted for by competition; the other half, says Cross-Tables operator Seth Lipkin, “just evaporated. Could have been just a normal drop-off that was going to happen anyway. Or could have been people’s response to the tensions.”

Among those who walked away was Kenji Matsumoto, a Scrabble grandmaster who took second at the ’11 Nationals, when he was 26. Two years later, alarmed by NASPA’s declining membership and dwindling prize pools, Matsumoto petitioned Cree, Chew and other leadership to “invest both time and money to help our community blossom.” Some 200 players lent their signatures, but Matsumoto says he never heard back, and so “I kind of gave up and stopped playing [competitively] after that.”

In accounting for NASPA’s flatlined headcount—the number of active dues-paying players has consistently hovered between 2,100 and 2,400 since 2009—Cree points to tournament Scrabble’s innate intensity (“Fear of embarrassment,” he says, “has always been the most pronounced barrier”) and its severed financial ties with Hasbro (“If [the NSA] could not exponentially increase membership with in excess of one million dollars per year . . . how could we?”).

But this ignores the bevy of other frustrations conspiring to drive away diehards, like the WGPO split and the dictionary debate and the dozens of other small-potato problems that trouble Scrabble (which Cree and Chew are left to clean up, with little thanks, even NASPA’s fiercest critics admit). “The smaller the subculture,” Fatsis says, “the bigger and dumber the divisions.”

It also dismisses problems of a much more serious nature, with ramifications extending far beyond the tiny world of the tiles.

***

Like so many new Scrabble players, Rachel Christensen was swept up by the wave of momentum that boosted the game through the turn of the century. Hooked, she says, by the “energy” and “positivity” of the community, the 2001 University of Washington graduate found a club in Seattle and later began driving to bigger gatherings, beyond the Pacific Northwest, including a multiday event in October ’06, in Calgary, where she crashed at the tournament director’s house. “It was the only way I could afford to go,” she says.

On the first night, after a group dinner, Christensen asked permission to send an email from the host’s computer, which was in a room where another player, Sam Kantimathi, was staying. Initially Kantimathi left the room, Christensen says, but soon he returned and started making small talk. “I told him I was typing an email to my boyfriend,” Christensen says. “He said, ‘Oh, only your boyfriend? It can’t be that serious.’ ” The next few seconds unfolded in a flash. “He put his hands on my shoulders and started rubbing them. Then his hand was down my shirt and into my bra.”

Christensen had never before encountered Kantimathi, but she’d heard enough to have been “excited” about meeting him, she recalls. An engineering consultant from Sacramento, Kantimathi had been a longtime tournament presence; his play in September 1993 of bezique, for 124 points, still stands as the second-highest-scoring opening move in NASPA’s record books. He also happened to be one of the Scrabble community’s foremost purveyors of custom equipment, from his $10 tile bags to his $200 boards, everything emblazoned with the website and toll-free number for his side business, SamTimer.

As Christensen would learn, Kantimathi was well-known for other reasons, too. In Calgary, she says she wrested his hand away, chastised him, hurried out of the bedroom and the next day told a fellow female player about the incident. “She was like, ‘Yeah, Sam is the worst,’ ” Christensen recalls. “ ‘You should never be in a room with him.’ ”

Indeed, Kantimathi’s conduct toward female Scrabble players had become something of an open secret. One longtime tournament director recounts making sure to escort fellow female players whenever Kantimathi asked them to pick up SamTimer equipment from his hotel room. But it wasn’t until late in the summer of 2017—one month before a New York Times exposé about the sex crimes of Harvey Weinstein brought attention to the #MeToo movement—that players began looking to take action.

Kantimathi won the Collins division at the 2012 Nationals.

Kantimathi won the Collins division at the 2012 Nationals.

At the time, Kantimathi was nearing the end of a four-year NASPA suspension for illegally palming tiles at the 2013 Nationals. Initially Kantimathi had been banned just two years, but NASPA’s advisory board—a council of players established to give the wider community more voice—voted to double the penalty after Kantimathi filed an appeal, steadfastly denying his guilt. The general assumption among players, says Tony Leah, who sat on that board, was that Kantimathi had suffered too much public shame to show his face at another tournament. “But he did, and that’s when people exploded.”

The earliest rumblings of concern appeared in a Facebook group called Scrabble Laydeez, which had been created as a space for female players to connect. (While the overall gender makeup of NASPA membership is roughly 60% male, women are vastly outnumbered at the highest levels.) Before long, enough stories about unpleasant encounters with Kantimathi had been shared that one player, Sue Tremblay, successfully lobbied NASPA to appoint her as a “community advocate” to investigate complaints of sexual misconduct by members.

She would be busy. Over the next year, Tremblay collected on-the-record statements from 14 women, including Christensen, and submitted them to NASPA’s tournament committee, which oversees discipline. Some expressed general discomfort with Kantimathi’s sexually inappropriate comments, unwanted advances and “creepy vibes.” Others were more detailed. Marsh Richards described how Kantimathi pulled her away from a conversation with her husband at the 2012 Nationals and told her, out of nowhere, “You have to stop making me think about your vagina.” Marsha Gillis recounted Kantimathi’s “bizarre ... attempt to drive a wedge into my marriage” through ceaseless phone, text and Facebook messages, in which he falsely insisted that her husband was having an affair. (Both Richards and Gillis confirmed these accounts to Sports Illustrated.)

Then there was Gerri Martin, who was 73 in April 2019 when she became the 15th named woman to speak out. As she explained in an email to NASPA, and later outlined to SI, she was playing at a tournament in Baltimore, in 2000, when she went to Kantimathi’s hotel room to buy a timer. “Suddenly he grabbed me and tried to kiss me while simultaneously grabbing my breast,” she wrote to NASPA. “I attempted to pull away, but he was very strong and determined to continue his advances.” Only after Martin threatened to “tell everybody” about the incident did Kantimathi back off, she says. She recalls running away, taking the clock with her.

In statements to NASPA, Kantimathi, now 66, did not refute any specific details from the on-the-record allegations, only declaring that his “recollection of some of the events differ from testimony.” He did, however, alternately apologize “without reservation” for “instances of poor behavior on my part” (an apology that he reiterated to SI); allude to the tournament committee’s investigation into him as a “ ‘Me Too’ inspired crusade”; and submit a completion certificate from an online sexual harassment course, as evidence of personal growth. “People have no idea what I [have] gone through ... because of those complaints,” he wrote. “Am I not punished enough?”

In reality, Kantimathi escaped punishment from NASPA altogether, other than a probationary “one-strike” warning—harass another woman and you’re banned for life—that the tournament committee issued in March 2018 and the advisory board later upheld. According to players involved with the proceedings, several factors were cited by NASPA leadership as justifying this decision: that Kantimathi was never charged with any crime; that the events reported by Christensen and Martin predated NASPA’s existence; and that no new allegations had emerged since Kantimathi returned from his cheating ban. “Your new behavior supports our judgement that you are a very different person,” tournament committee chair Rich Baker wrote to Kantimathi in May ’19.

The backlash was swift. Christensen was frustrated that NASPA had asked her to clarify “the most asinine” details about her complaint, such as whether Kantimathi “actually [made] contact with your breast.” Baker drew ire for what some characterized as downplaying the severity of the matter, dismissing one player’s concerns as “overblown wailing.” And in a final advisory board ruling in June ’19, which effectively closed the book on Kantimathi’s case, a vote was cast by all men, while four other board members, including two women, were forcibly recused because of their connections to complainants. (A Hasbro spokesperson says the company was previously unaware of these events but “will be looking into the allegations immediately.”)

Once again, players and organizers took matters into their own hands. At the 2019 world championships in Goa, India, Leah showed up for his match against Kantimathi wearing a T-shirt featuring cartoon portraits of top Scrabble players, including Kantimathi, whose name had been covered with the words CHEATER/HARASSER. “He’s banned from any tournament I run, which is quite a lot,” says Tremblay—and plenty others have followed.

But for some women in Scrabble, this is not enough. “[NASPA] took action against somebody for cheating,” says Martin. “Why wouldn’t they take action against somebody who was inappropriate sexually?” After the vote, one of the recused advisory board members, Jennifer Lee, resigned from her post in protest; she and her husband, Evans Clinchy, a former Collins national champion (and, full disclosure, the editor in chief of The Tufts Daily when this writer was a freshman reporter), stopped playing in NASPA events and later launched a competing organization, CoCo. Gillis, meanwhile, is just one of several complainants who have stopped attending events where Kantimathi is welcome or who have quit competitive Scrabble altogether. “I won’t put myself in a position where I’ll see Sam,” she says.

To Christensen, the most troubling part of this all is her feeling that NASPA leadership protected one man—a veteran, high-level player; a NASPA committee member from 2009 to ’13; and a leading equipment salesman—over its female membership. “It’s so clear,” she says. “The value is definitely not on the safety of the members. That’s fine if that’s your standpoint. But don’t expect people to come back.”

Part of the appeal of Scrabble: a diverse community in which wordsmiths from the furthest ends of any spectrum can face off.

Part of the appeal of Scrabble: a diverse community in which wordsmiths from the furthest ends of any spectrum can face off.

***

In the months since the Kingston Open, where the only contentious moment was a mild shouting match over a scorekeeping discrepancy, Scrabble players have continued to endure a steady drip-drip-drip of controversy. “Every month, it seems like there’s some new uproar,” says Anderson, the continent’s top player. Even so, a pair of major issues stand out above the rest.

The first arose in the middle of March. Even as every major sports league in the country shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, NASPA refused to halt its tournaments; that decision was left instead to individual directors. The organization finally ordered a pause on March 18, but not before Fatsis wrote on Slate about player pushback (including a petition, signed by seven doctors, urging for play to be unilaterally halted), and not before Hasbro executives contacted Chew (who now runs NASPA’s day-to-day as CEO, after a 2019 restructuring that saw Cree slide into the CFO role) to express their concerns.

Then, as social justice protests gripped the country in early summer, a debate erupted in the Scrabble community concerning the 250-odd racial, anti-LGBTQ and other targeted slurs that populate NASPA’s official tournament word list. The initial spark came when one player suggested in a Facebook post that NASPA should remove the n-word to “show solidarity with [the Black Lives Matter movement] and demonstrate that NASPA does not condone racism.” Chew took this further, formally proposing to the advisory board a blanket ban on every slur, thereby angering linguistic purists, who argued that definitions don’t matter in Scrabble, only associated point values.

In the end, NASPA “agreed to remove all slurs ... for Scrabble tournament play,” according to a July 8 statement titled “Hasbro Update on Scrabble Rules.” (The final purge list ranges from the n-word and the c-word to redneck, honky and superbitch. Notably, the former name of the NFL’s Washington Football Team is still playable.) Once again, though, the process sparked outrage. Players howled about the fact that NASPA’s executive board had acted against its membership in siding with Hasbro, vetoing what turned out to be a symbolic advisory board vote to keep the word list intact. Not that they had much choice. As Chew told the advisory board, the nature of NASPA’s relationship with Hasbro had presented him with a black-and-white choice about the slurs: Lose them, or lose the Scrabble license. (The organization overseeing English-language Scrabble abroad has thus far not taken any action with its lexicon.)

“There are plenty of people who disagree with the decision and hate the way it was done,” Anderson says. “And there are plenty of people who agree with the decision and hate the way it was done.”

Like many of the 50-plus current and former players, directors and community members interviewed for this story, Anderson can rattle off a long list of gripes about the current Scrabble scene. The Kantimathi case. (“Such a bad decision.”) The dictionary split. (“A crisis.”) Stagnant membership, splinter organizations and NASPA’s seeming indifference—as reflected by the small sliver of its budget used for marketing—about growing the scene.

“It is incredibly thankless to be a New York Jets fan,” says Anderson. “It sucks. And it’s kind of the same way in Scrabble. When things aren’t going right, you’re like, How are you still a fan? The reason: Somewhere, beneath all of the displeasure and bellyaching, is genuine love. The game of Scrabble is so perfect that we are willing to put up with a ton of bulls---.”

There are plenty of reasons for pessimism, Anderson admits. Hasbro still isn’t investing in adult competition beyond prize money for the nationals, which were canceled this year because of COVID-19. NASPA still holds the Scrabble license, content to tread water in terms of membership numbers with little infrastructure to grow any faster (no p.r. division, no social media department, no corporate sponsors anywhere near the level of Nike or Coke ...). And the relationship between those two key Scrabble parties—Hasbro and NASPA—remains complicated. After the meeting with Hasbro in which Chew agreed to remove the slurs, members recall, he relayed to the advisory board a rosy upshot of the sensitive talks: “This means they’ll start answering my emails again, which they hadn’t been doing for a year.” (Hasbro declined to comment on its relationship with NASPA, citing "corporate policy.")

But there have also been seeds of progress. And players, again, are taking the lead. High-level online competition has long been hosted exclusively on an unsanctioned Romanian website; today, a group of players is developing a new platform, Woogles, having raised enough cash on Kickstarter to launch a beta version. CoCo, the organization started by Clinchy and Lee, hosted a 16-nation Virtual World Cup in August. And while NASPA has remained mostly dark during the pandemic, Anderson has produced and hosted live coverage of a variety of online Scrabble events on his personal Twitch channel.

So Anderson has hope. He sees chess matches on Twitch attracting millions of viewers every month and Scrabble-inspired mobile apps such as Words With Friends drawing legions more. He sees the successful global pro tours of other tabletop games, such as poker and Magic: The Gathering (another Hasbro property). He sees the flourishing competitive scenes in Thailand, where the King’s Cup in Bangkok draws some 10,000 competitors, and Nigeria, where Scrabble is a government-sanctioned sport.

And he wonders: Why can’t we be big again, too? “With the correct governance and organization, Scrabble has a huge ceiling.”

Fatsis, the public voice of tournament Scrabble over the past two decades in North America, shares some of this cautious enthusiasm. But his hope isn’t focused entirely on the adult scene. “If we set aside the bickering and infighting, and designed a dream scenario,” he says, “it would start with what’s happening in Philly.”

***

“Uh, oh! Here they come!”

Smiling beneath his red Scrabble hat, holding a well-worn Scrabble dictionary, 74-year-old Matt Hopkins can see the  future. It is rushing toward him, embodied by 100 students, grades three through 12, about to devour soft-pretzel snacks and then compete in the Philadelphia Scholastic Scrabble League Finals in February at the city’s African American Museum.

Hopkins was like them once, just another kid taken by the tiles. Born in South Philly, he began playing around age five with his mother, who used Scrabble to teach him how to spell. Decades later, when she was suffering from terminal lung cancer, some of mother and son’s final moments together were shared over the board. After her death in 1992, Hopkins found a local club and entered the tournament scene, eventually traveling to Hasbro headquarters in East Longmeadow for that “ground-breaking summit.”

Today, however, he stays away from the competitive arena; he hasn’t been to a NASPA tournament in 10 years. He directs his Scrabble enthusiasm, instead, into his gig as a tournament director and coach for the country’s largest scholastic Scrabble initiative: more than 1,100 kids across 87 local clubs under the umbrella of an after-school program that also offers drama, debate and chess. Hopkins loves the teamwork Scrabble promotes (here students compete in pairs); the vocabulary and math it teaches (inherent Scrabble benefits); the diversity it attracts (like Hopkins, the overwhelming majority of entrants at the Philly finals were Black); and the focus it generates in a group that was previously shrieking for soft pretzels. Miraculously, only one student is busted for checking a cellphone during the multihour event.

No, youth Scrabble isn’t immune to the myriad problems plaguing the adult scene. Overall corporate investment is similarly minimal: Whereas Hasbro was years ago pumping upward of $300,000 annually into the NSA’s School Scrabble program, today’s National School Scrabble Championships are outsourced to a brand development company, with local directors and coaches left to organize and fund everything else. (With this licensing arrangement, NASPA has virtually no involvement in what should otherwise act as a feeder system for new members.)

At ASAP Scrabble, an afterschool program in Philly, kids dabble in wordplay using the classic Hasbro grid.

At ASAP Scrabble, an afterschool program in Philly, kids dabble in wordplay using the classic Hasbro grid.

But the groundwork is there. It is here. Surveying the boards at the African American Museum, Hopkins imagines the possibilities. What if there was a vibrant, central online hub to host youth tournaments and offer learning resources for new players? What if there were high school leagues, attracting top talent from youth organizations modeled after Philly? What if there was an annual television event, not unlike the Scripps National Spelling Bee, funded by educational sponsors and appealing to an audience of grown-ups who were made to feel both impressed and shamed by smarty-pants kids?

“I know we’ve had our glory days,” Hopkins says, but “the game is in a healthy place because of the children.”

Children like Heather Jordan. Despite being the advanced division’s only solo entrant, the 15-year-old blows away the competition at the school finals. But this was a predictable result. Hopkins knew Heather had that special Scrabble drive when he saw her studying words on the trolley ride home from a club meeting.

As Heather accepts her trophy, her father, Eric, watches nearby with pride. Just a few months earlier, after attending her first NASPA tournament, she’d sent him a text: “I keep losing. Why do I enjoy it so much?” Obsessed as she may be, though, Eric says she is also realistic about the game’s limitations, starting with the obvious. No one plays Scrabble for a living. The money just isn’t there.

No matter, Eric says. His daughter already has a career picked out. She plans to one day become an architect, specifically in the field of historic preservation. She wants to help fix up old buildings in disrepair, reinvigorating once-renowned establishments that aren’t too far gone to save.

Read more of SI's Daily Cover stories here

Correction: An earlier version of this story scored Kantimathi's record-setting play of bezique as 123 points.