Under Its Spell

Consumed by board game, Maryland's top Scrabble player takes his war of words to New Orleans.

July 31, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Just goes to show people don't know everything.

Take Sammy Okosagah of Baltimore, a nice guy, a smart guy, but he hasn't heard of every word. Yes, his vocabulary probably approaches 120,000 words on account he's Maryland top Scrabble player and he's been as high as No. 2 in the nation. This weekend, the 38-year-old Nigerian heads to the National Scrabble Championship in New Orleans, home of the French Quarter.

"What is that?" Okosagah asks.

The French Quarter, a hundred squares of downtown New Orleans and home to Bourbon Street and Preservation Hall and Mardi Gras. Hurricanes are the featured drinks; they purportedly can lead to somewhat unorthodox behavior involving Mardi Gras beads. You know, Vieux Carre. The French Quarter!

"Is it fun?" Okosagah asks.

Potentially.

"Then I will be there."

Nothing says New Orleans in August more than championship Scrabble. More than 800 people from 40 states and five foreign countries plan to enter a subculture of extensions, hooks, ana-hooks, anagrams, sub-anagrams and blana-grams. Bringing their own tiles and timers, contestants will play seven required hours of Scrabble each day, and the winner on Thursday will go home with $25,000 and a guest spot on ESPN in the fall.

Once a rainy-day diversion, Scrabble now rates the attention of a major sports network. The 56-year-old Hasbro board game is fresh off of exposure from the Sundance documentary Word Wars and the best-selling book, Word Freak. Words are in. Words are hot.

"Being smart is sexy. At least I've counted on that all my life," says Scrabble wrangler John D. Williams Jr. He's executive director of the National Scrabble Association, which organizes the championships. Williams once won a Scrabble tournament by scoring "ironist" on his last move. He's still waiting for someone to use the last word in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary: zyzzyva, which apparently is a tropical weevil.

Tournament Scrabble had been the domain of mostly guys from Long Island, namely Joe Edley - nicknamed Darth Vader on the Scrabble circuit. Long Island still produces hundreds of rated players. But in the last decade or so, the game began to attract players from places such as New Zealand, Bahrain, Romania, Thailand and Nigeria. Speaking English is not a requirement (which could be tricky since the winner in New Orleans has a date with the Today show). A savant's memory, a bean counter's brain and a gambler's guts are more desirable traits than any native tongue.

Similar to poker

Williams himself was a serious poker player in his day. Scrabble is a similar game - players have to manage their racks like card players managing their hands. You have to know what to keep or discard, and you have to keep track of how many T's are out just like counting, say, jacks. Williams isn't surprised to learn Sammy Okosagah also likes to gamble. He's seen the Nigerian's Scrabble game.

"He's good - but Marlon is better," Williams says. "Marlon is more tournament tested."

Marlon Hill, another member of the Maryland delegation to New Orleans, is a Baltimore writer ("happily poor," as he says) and also a nationally ranked Scrabble player.

This week, Hill was in Los Angeles promoting the movie Word Wars, in which he was featured. When home in Baltimore, he is Okosagah's Scrabble buddy. They play 60 games a week.

"We're two brothers who play Scrabble," says Hill, 39. Apparently, not many black men or women are on the Scrabble circuit. "I used to be the best brother in the world until I met him. But I have no trouble taking the back seat to Samson.

"His game is the truth."

The truth also is most people have to work to support their hobbies. Samson "Sammy" Okosagah is general manager of the IHOP in Towson, where we recently met him after his shift. We could have challenged him to a game of Scrabble and, gee, maybe later, raced Michael Phelps to the end of the pool.

Okosagah, a five-time Nigerian Grand Master, has lived in the United States eight years. He had run an advertising business in Nigeria but wanted a change, so he sold his business and settled in Baltimore. He wants to run an American business, "where there are little trophies right in front and when people come in they will say, `That man has been places.'"

His 8-year-old daughter, Sharon, plays a little Scrabble, but 2-year-old Jordan doesn't quite yet have the vocabulary of his old man. Okosagah started playing Scrabble when he was Sharon's age and, soon after, began beating his uncle routinely. Okosagah also fell for chess - until years later when a roommate beat him blindfolded. This was discouraging. So, Okosagah ditched chess and bore down on his first hobby. "When I'm not here working or home sleeping, I play Scrabble."

Memorize dictionaries

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