Scrabble: Marlon Hill of East Baltimore has broken into the top ranks of a game dominated by white men. And he's out to prove his success is no fluke.


August 05, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Marlon Hill is going to Reno and show them.

Two weeks ago in Dallas, he broke into the elite of competitive Scrabble by finishing second in the National Scrabble Championship. It was a performance worth $10,000. Now he figures the overwhelmingly white, male universe of top Scrabble players is watching him and wondering: Can this black man from East Baltimore be for real?

Just watch, he says. On Thursday, Hill plans to walk into a Scrabble tournament at the Sands Regency Hotel in Reno with his set of 100 letters in a bag, a black cloth pouch marked with a big X. The X is for Malcolm. On a cord around his neck he'll wear a black wooden fist. The best players will resemble so many Johns Hopkins biochemistry majors. Hill, a stocky man of 31, will take his seat and begin tournament play, determined to demonstrate that he belongs.

"The main reason I'm going to Reno is not for the money, but to prove Dallas was not a fluke," says Hill. "You get looks saying, 'You're not the real McCoy.' I am certainly the real McCoy. I don't cut Europeans any slack on that. You can tell when someone is attempting to be condescending."

Europeans are white folks. Lots of them populate the highly competitive, if not very lucrative, world of championship Scrabble. Perhaps Hill correctly reads their dismissive behavior, perhaps not. Either way, he's a demographic anomaly on the Scrabble tournament circuit. Among the top 50 rated Scrabble players in the country, only three are black, says the National Scrabble Association.

One of them is Hill. Despite his antagonistic rhetoric about the United States and race, he's a friendly man with a ready smile. He lives on North Wolfe Street with his mother and his long-time girlfriend.

Hill has a reputation as an astute Scrabble strategist, knows thousands of words you never heard and has a gift for anagrams. He glances at the nameplate on a visitor's car and instantly spots one: "Integra, that's gratine."

Asked what it means, he laughs, shrugs. Who knows? Who cares? Scrabble may be known as a game for word lovers, but at the tournament level words are about points, not meanings.

Gratine is a cooking term from French meaning a covering or crust. Whatever. The point is this: Play the word and you've got a "bingo." That's Scrabble talk for using all seven letters in your rack at once for a 50-point bonus. To win tournaments, you have to make a habit of playing those.

At the National Championship late last month, Hill averaged 1.5 bingos a game. He won 19 of 27 games over five days and averaged nearly 410 points per game. A good leisure Scrabble player probably feels good after scoring 250 points.

Tournament Scrabble is quite another game. This is no friendly, breezy gathering around the kitchen table. Sports Illustrated has called a Scrabble tournament "the quietest sporting event this side of chess," featuring top players who are "brilliant, obsessive, cutthroat competitive."

In tournaments, each player has 25 minutes to complete his or her game, keeping time on a chess clock beside the board. Hill is known for speed in spotting words that lie scrambled in his rack.

"His mind is like a computer," says Louis Berney, a free-lance writer from Baltimore who often plays Hill at a Scrabble club in Fells Point. "He has tremendous knowledge of words and word combinations."

In one of their past games, Berney played VUGH, "a small cavity in a rock or lode," for a double word score of 22. Nice. Hill countered with BOHEMIAN through the H, hitting two triple-word squares. The word was worth nine times the point value of the letters, including a double letter score on the E, plus 50 for the bingo -- 194 points. Ouch.

Winning loudly

In the hush of a tournament room, Hill is apt to stand out. He's as intense as the next player, but he chatters, cajoles, ruminates aloud.

"I'm one of the few players who talks. I'm chatty, I don't shut up," he says, giving an example of his patter: "Stop scoring so much. Slow down. Give me a chance. Mercy "

Sometimes players complain. Usually it depends on who's winning.

At the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas, that was usually Hill. He clinched second place in the National Championship by beating one of the top players in the country, Brian Cappelletto, a Chicago commodities trader. Hill won by 5 points, hitting three bingos with the words "nauseant," an agent that causes nausea, "jarldoms," plural for the domain of a Scandinavian nobleman, and "aneurin," another word for the vitamin thiamine.

Hill finished second to Adam Logan, a 21-year-old graduate student in mathematics at Harvard University who took home $25,000 and an engraved sterling silver bowl. He won 24 of 27 games, including one trouncing of Hill. It was the most swift and convincing win in the 11 national tournaments that have been played since 1978. Logan graduated from Princeton when he was 19.

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