They Have a Way with Words

A view of two very different people who share an unusual talent: a high aptitude for playing tournament Scrabble
September 22, 1991

Two minutes into the 11th and final round of the 1991 Boston Area Scrabble Open, the ballroom of the Guest Quarters Suite Hotel in Waltham rattles and clicks like a forest of cicadas. Dozens of competitors are drawing lettered tiles from velvet bags. At the front of the hall, 18 top-ranked players—the tournament's Premier Division—compete on deluxe game boards. At stake is a trophy, a $200 prize and valuable rating points on the National Scrabble Association (NSA) ladder. Because the NSA's top eight players are to compete in the first-ever Scrabble World Championship, to be held in London Sept. 27-30, this year's Boston Open has taken on a special significance.

Among the Premier Division players is Arizona State University junior Brian Cappelletto. For his second word, the 21-year-old from Phoenix plays SEVERELY, laying all seven of his tiles in what Scrabble enthusiasts call a "bingo." The bingo's 50-point bonus gives him an early lead over his 55-year-old opponent, Lester Schonbrun of Oakland, who placed second in the 1990 nationals. Cappelletto punches his chess clock, having used less than one of his 25 allotted minutes.

In the chair to Cappelletto's left, tournament leader Joe Edley of Riverhead, N.Y., is clearly ticked off. The wiry 43-year-old former national champion (1980) sits and fumes. His tight-lipped face could pass for John McEnroe's—just before the racket goes flying. He is upset not by his adversary across the board, nor by his own play, but by the fact that Cappelletto is sitting next to him.

"He's watching me," Edley says to Ed Halper, his opponent. "Let's move to another table."

"If you have a problem, you should've said something before we started," answers Halper. "I don't have a problem."

"The tournament hinges on our game and his game. He knows it. He shouldn't kibitz."

"Doesn't bother me," insists Halper.

Cappelletto is watching Edley. Perhaps even smirking. He seems oblivious to the fact that Schonbrun has answered SEVERELY with NONSUITS, for 78 points. Edley calls for a ruling on whether he may change tables once play has begun. As the tournament director approaches, Cappelletto glances at his own tiles to find PRIVILY, worth 54 points—and then turns to watch Edley.

Cappelletto has shaken Edley, and he knows it. The kid has been shaking veteran tournament players ever since he was 17, even though he was only 15 when he took up the game in 1985. Cappelletto has been talked of as the Bobby Fischer of Scrabble, one of the brightest young lights in the history of the game.

Scrabble was invented in 1931 when out-of-work architect Alfred M. Butts covered a checkerboard with a sheet of architectural grid paper. A fan of crosswords and cryptograms, Butts wanted to create a game that combined both. He cut 100 tiles from plywood, assigning particular letters and point values to each by calculating how often an individual letter appeared on a front page of The New York Times. With a 26-letter alphabet, 100 tiles and 225 squares upon which to play them, game possibilities were as diverse as snowflakes. Scrabble, Butts found, could be endlessly entertaining. More than 100 million Scrabble sets later, Butts's brainchild is still delighting players worldwide.

About 15 years ago, Scrabble clubs and tournaments started popping up throughout the U.S. Although the luck of the draw will always have something to do with winning a Scrabble match, talented players were finding ways to bring cunning and strategy to bear. "I used to play chess seriously, and Scrabble for fun," says Robert Felt of Chicago, winner of the 1990 North American Scrabble Open and currently the top-ranked NSA player. "But I realized that the great chess moves had been around for a hundred years. In Scrabble there was opportunity for innovation—it was something I could play seriously and excel at in a far shorter period of time." The innovation of the best tournament players is restricted by, but sometimes abetted by, the game's final authority, The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. This bible of the board game contains many exotic and potentially useful words, such as XU (a monetary unit) and QOPH (the 19th letter of the Hebrew alphabet).

There are now more than 6,000 ranked Scrabble players competing annually in some 75 sanctioned U.S. tournaments. Constantly high on that list of players during the past five years have been the names Cappelletto and Edley.

Tanned and broad shouldered, Cappelletto is anything but the bookish, Coke-bottle-bespectacled nerd one might expect as a Scrabble expert. He favors crew shirts and jeans. He enjoys golf and shoots in the 80s. But it's Scrabble that he's great at. "He's a natural," says his mother, Holly, who remembers the day six years ago when a Phoenix neighbor invited Brian to a local Scrabble club meeting. Cappelletto's word recall and ease under pressure were immediately apparent. The kid was soon playing up to 20 games a week. He began winning tournaments two years after picking up the tiles.

Edley is perhaps Scrabble's only true professional. Since 1980 he has earned more tournament dollars than any other player. As an advertising executive with Williams & Company, he spends much of his time promoting Scrabble for the Milton Bradley Co., the game's owner in the United States. Edley promotes individual tournaments as well, and he helped set up this month's big event in London.

Cappelletto scored a narrow victory in his first game in Boston. During the final minutes of his second game, he drummed his fingers and fidgeted with his hair as he juggled letters in his mind, trying to find a way to open a board that had closed against him. The drumming and fidgeting provided no solution; Cappelletto lost the game and was off to a mediocre start in the 11-round championship.

In Boston, players were assigned "tournament credits" based upon the number of points by which they won or lost their games. The 18 Premier Division players were divided into Yellow and Blue groups, each of which played a round robin. After eight rounds of play, the top four players from each group would advance to the final three rounds. A standings chart hung in a corner of the hall, and after each round, players crowded around for updates. After five rounds Joel Sherman led the Blues with 237 credits, and Edley was second with 233. Felt led the Yellow group with 232 credits, and Cappelletto was second with 222, even though he had lost twice. Additional losses in Games 6 and 7 dropped Cappelletto to seventh in the division, and he was poised for elimination.

Cappelletto won Game 8 against "Disco Lou" Schecter of Brooklyn by a whopping 126 points. The margin raised his tournament total to 329. Meanwhile, Felt lost to Edley by 150 points, and his tournament score dropped to 329. Felt and Cappelletto were tied for fourth in the Yellow division, but only one of the two could advance to the final rounds. Felt's points-against figure was greater than Cappelletto's, and according to the tournament rules, this meant that Felt was out and Cappelletto was in.

Cappelletto's opponent for Game 9 was Edley, and Cappelletto was determined to break the older man's momentum. Edley, for his part, was trying to maintain his poise by serenely performing a t'ai chi ch'uan routine near the game tables, calming himself for the match.

It was a titanic game. Over the course of 20 words played, the lead switched hands several times. On the 21st play, Edley found room for an 80-point bingo and took the lead, 408-348. He drew the single tile left in the bag. Fortunately for Cappelletto, Edley's last tile was a c, one of four letters which cannot be combined with any vowel for a two-letter word (the others are Q, V and z). Edley was forced to pass as Cappelletto played four times and brought his score to 410, two points more than Edley's 408.

In Game 10, Cappelletto beat his tournament roommate, Chris Cree of Dallas, by 207 points. Three tables down, Edley fell to former national champion Joel Wapnick. With one round to play, the top three on the chart were Edley, Cappelletto and Schonbrun.

"He's watching me," Edley suddenly declares during Game 11. The faintest hint of a smile creeps over Cappelletto's face as Edley tries to explain to the judge that he doesn't like being watched. Cappelletto stares intently at his tiles as the tournament director refuses to allow Edley a change of tables.

Despite his strong opening against Schonbrun, which includes both SEVERELY and PRIVILY, Cappelletto begins to fade about the time he plays FADING for 30 points. Schonbrun draws from the bag x, Q, z, a blank and two s's. He uses them smartly, and Cappelletto is left holding letters he can't win with. Schonbrun beats Cappelletto 397-373. Immediately next to them Edley loses his third game in a row, this one by 80 points. As it happens, if Cappelletto had defeated Schonbrun by 58 points or more, he would have taken the tournament. Instead, when the grand calculation is complete, he stands fifth and Edley has won the Boston Open.

The pro and the kid will meet again. Perhaps it will be in London, since they both have qualified for the trip. But whether it's in London, next year in Boston, or somewhere else, they'll meet again. It's a small society atop the Scrabble heap, where top players feed off the tension, and one another, to push a board game to new limits.

PHOTOTED RICECappelletto plays many kinds of mind games at the board. PHOTOTED RICEEdley is an old hand at high-pressure Scrabble.

Michael Ray Taylor teaches journalism at Henderson State University in Arkadelhphia, Ark.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)