WAR of Words Scrabble: In this gut-wrenching contest 25,000 big bucks go to the winner the world's top-seeded players know drawing a blank is a plus and every letter bit helps.

November 25, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Dirty words. Sexist words. Racist, scatological and otherwise impolite and impolitic words.

Like sticks and stones, the words that flew this weekend at the World Scrabble Championships here could hurt you -- but only in the final score. WOG openly played in a room shared with former British subjects? WOP and DAGO? SLUT? POO?

OY!

It's a delicious irony -- albeit one mostly lost on this crowd of literalists -- that tournament Scrabble is a word game played with words stripped of their meanings. In fact, meanings mean so little that some of the foreign players in town for the championship vie with the best even though they don't speak much English. They simply memorize tens of thousands of letter combinations that coincidentally make words.

As even a top American competitor noted, "I don't think of them as words, I think of them as letter sequences."

Still, while the biennial world tournament that ended yesterday drew 80 competitors from as far away as Thailand, Nigeria and the Seychelles, this remains largely a white bastion. English is still the official language here, and native English speakers dominate. And while a handful of women are making inroads, it's still a boys' club.

And a very small club at that. Everyone knows everyone at the top levels, and so the weekend is both warm and competitive. While hardly an exciting spectator sport -- surely only in a Solitaire championship could the action be more internalized -- to the elite players, this is a raucous, interactive game.

While competitors are mostly silent during matches, the kibitzing and second-guessing of other people's games is a major part of the championship. A continuous Greek chorus commented on this week's action: Players done with their matches wandered over to othergames to whisper what they would do.

Marlon Hill of Baltimore was barely containable. The voluble Hill, a computer game tester, was miffed to be left out of the tournament -- the number of Americans was limited so other countries would have a prayer of cracking the finals. So he spent the weekend looking over other players' shoulders and becoming a favorite of the press for his outspoken commentary and assistance in understanding Scrabble weirdness.

"Passion is the third dimension of Scrabble," Hill would sound-bite grandly into the microphones.

Hill was staying with his friend Matt Graham, 31, a New Yorker whom some organizers secretly were rooting for. With his slouchy, Generation X sensibility, Graham is viewed as a hipster in this fusty crowd. Plus, he's a stand-up comedian -- somehow managing to squeeze in a gig at a suburban Holiday Inn one night during this tense weekend -- and thus much better profile material amid this crowd of accountants, students, computer programmers and more accountants.

"He was my first Scrabble friend, and I don't have many," Hill says. "He hustled me on a train to Atlanta. It was just $27, but I couldn't believe someone from Indianapolis could hustle me."

That was in 1992, when they were both en route to a Scrabble championship. They've remained good friends, with Hill sleeping in the closet of Graham's hotel room during this tournament to avoid disturbing his sleep, helping him with anagram exercises when he woke in the middle of the night and making sure he had enough distilled water, along with his Afrin, at his side for every match.

It's a high-maintenance group: lots of quirks, lots of sniffles and .. stomach rumblings and hair twisting and eye shading. One player chewed at his shirt, starting at the collar and seeming to inhale more of it as the tension mounted. After all, a first-place prize of $25,000 was at stake.

A world affair

The weekend actually began Thursday night with a reception, perfectly suited to its Washington locale with many attendees in their national garb: Nigerians in full-length robes, Indians in bright saris, Americans in everything from blue jeans to Brooks Brothers. The New Zealand ambassador shows up to boost his team and joke that if it doesn't win he'll never get to go home. Unofficial ambassadors also abound: Bob Linn, who heads the Washington area Scrabble club, squires the Thai team around; team members are his houseguests in Potomac.

Some are on their first trip here and looking forward to being tourists, but after the tournament ends. A Malaysian wants to find Levi's for $25. (He ultimately discovers Marshall's.)

It's not long before the first official Scrabble moment occurs: Hotel staff accidentally bump a big display board that announces the world tournament in oversized Scrabble tiles, and it crashes to the floor, scattering letters everywhere.

"Did they do that on purpose?" wonders Joel Sherman, a 35-year-old New Yorker who placed second in the last world tournament.

Another player scrambles to his hands and knees and starts making order out of chaos. "C-R-A-P!" he announces, rapidly aligning the letters. "C-R-A-M!" he says a second later, replacing one tile. "C-R-A-M-P!" he finishes triumphantly.

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