Bill and Tim Wade's secret weapon in the Scrabble wars is an old red cardboard box that originally contained a couple of bottles of wine.
In the box the two Scrabble experts from Muncie, Ind. have computer printouts listing all the seven-letter combinations they are likely to see on their racks and the thousands of seven-letter words, known to tournament players as "bingos," that can be made from them.
The bingo lists, the originals of which were compiled by a computer at Brown University—how they found their way into the Wades' box is the brothers' closely kept secret—have helped the Wades become two of the best Scrabble players in America in only slightly more than two years of competing in major tournaments.
Scrabble Crossword Game Players Inc., which has its national headquarters in Holbrook, N.Y., doesn't compute average scores for its 517 recognized expert players, but it says that a total of 350 to 400 points a game is the earmark of a premium player. Tim, 32, averages 400 points and Bill, 23, 450 in sanctioned club and tournament play.
January 11, 1982
They do it, they say, without spending a lot of time cramming words into their heads like students the night before a vocabulary test. "You can't learn 21,000 words, but you can learn the most common racks," says Bill.
Still, the Wades say that thanks to the printouts, other word lists, flash cards and five or six practice games against each other a week, they now have about half of the 100,000 words listed in The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary at their command. They also know the all-important two-letter words (there are 86) and three-letter words (908) in the dictionary by heart.
Those aren't uncommon feats among the tournament Scrabble players, a curious collection of word-game fanatics who will travel hundreds of miles to spend all day or all weekend playing the game. The uncommon thing about the Wades is that they are fairly "normal," even though Scrabble often attracts players who bring to mind such seven-letter racks as strange and bizarre.
Bill is a tall, boyish graduate assistant in the mathematics department of Ball State University. Tim is shorter, darker, with a thin black mustache and a wry smile that can drive opponents to distraction. He's a bartender who moonlights as a substitute math teacher.
The brothers started playing at home against each other, but after a few years they decided to see if they were in the same league with tournament players. They were. Tim won the first tournament he entered, and Bill scored a major league 570 points in his first tournament game.
Scrabble still was little more than a game for the Wades, until Bill qualified for the North American championships in Los Angeles in 1980. "It was a joke," he say's, "until I woke up and realized I had won a trip to L.A. I thought, 'Good grief, all this from a word game!' "
Bill, one of the youngest players in the North Americans, placed only 30th in a field of 32. "It didn't bother me," he says, "because I had such a good time." And he beat some of the top players. He'll get his chance to prove he can beat the rest of them in the next North American championships, tentatively scheduled for 1983 somewhere in the Midwest.
To tune up for that tournament and others, Bill and Tim will continue to lug their deluxe, plastic-gridded Scrabble boards and boxed computer lists the 40 miles to Marion, Ind. twice a month to play in a Scrabble club there. It's like a pair of Magic Johnsons coming to a schoolyard to play a little one-on-one.
"I'll bet you never saw these before," Bill told his first Marion opponent, spilling a bagful of blue letter tiles onto the table. The special blue tiles are given as prizes in big-time Scrabble tournaments, and they label a Scrabble shark the way a fancy cue in a leather case marks a pool hustler.
They have familiarized the club players with some of the more unusual words in the Scrabble dictionary. "Many of the stranger-looking words also have strange definitions, which makes them easier to remember," Bill says. Among his favorites: "fubsy," an adjective meaning pleasantly plump, and "tenesmus," a noun meaning an uncontrollable urge to urinate or defecate.
Then there are words that aren't in the official dictionary. In a recent match, Bill laid down "eanates" with a straight face. His opponent didn't challenge. "There's no such word," Bill announced after the game.
"In tournaments I think you should exploit any psychological advantage you have," he says of the tactic of playing "phonies." Indeed, in one tournament, held in the town of Delaware, Ohio in 1980, Bill won by playing nine phonies, all of which his opponent failed to challenge. "After they don't challenge the first one, they find it becomes harder and harder to challenge anything," he says.
Of course, those who live by the phony sometimes die by it. In their most recent tournament, the Indiana Open in Marion, both Wades were victimized by words that were the inventions of their opponents. Bill let "enseals" slip by, while Tim overlooked "inagile."
Those unagile oversights couldn't stop Bill from displaying championship form against the best players from a five-state area. He was the only one of 22 expert players to go undefeated through the first five games of the all-day tournament, but he lost the sixth game and the $50 first prize—on scoring margin—to Elaine Glowniak, a Detroit art student.
A loss like that isn't about to prompt the Wades to hang up their printouts. "This is a great game," Bill says. "You don't have to go out to try and kill yourself, and you can play it your whole life. We're not going to make any money from it, but we're going to keep playing."