Nice Rack: How To Enter The Professional Scrabble Scene

Thanks to the time-sucker that is Words With Friends, word games have experienced a renaissance lately, which means more attention is being paid to the mother of all word board games: Scrabble. The game has been around for 75 years and has developed a professional tournament scene that’s been chronicled in the documentary, Word Wars, and the book/memoir, Word Freak. It’s a fascinating, highly competitive scene and one that I’ve been proud to be in. But one question has always bothered me at club meetings and tournaments: where are all my fellow girls?

National Scrabble champions tend to be male, though there have been a few female champs in the past. Club meetings have their fair share of women but very rarely are they younger than 35 (though the youngest expert in tournament history is only 13 years old). So consider this a call to arms, ladies. The Scrabble world needs more young women who can rattle off anagrams in their sleep. Here are six steps to joining the professional scene, accessories not included.

1. Become a formidable living room player.

A “living room player” is the rather condescending term Scrabblers use to label those who have never played tournament-style Scrabble before. But, hey, you have to start somewhere. Challenge everyone –your cousin, your best friend, your English teacher with a word-a-day calendar– to a game. Be that person who insists on no cheating or playing fake words (see: “twerk” and “STFU”). Enforce the rules when it comes to challenging a word and use the official Scrabble dictionary. Sure, some people might bristle against your officialness when it comes to a board game, but you’re laying the groundwork to becoming a take-no-prisoners tournament player.

2. Join ISC.

Once you can beat everyone in your immediate social circle (sorry, Mom), join the Internet Scrabble Club (ISC). This is the platform many other tournament players use, and it’s an easy way to familiarize yourself with obscure words that come naturally to many seasoned tile-movers. Bingos (words that use up all seven of your tiles and give you an extra 50 points) may get all the glory, but it’s the tricky two- and three-letter words that are the most important. Playing people from all over the world on ISC will help you master them, along with other aspects of a tournament, such as timed games and the occasional profanity-filled outburst from your opponent (which is why, out of self preservation, I have turned the “chat” feature off).

3. Find your local club.

Now that you’ve dipped your toe deeper into the Scrabble world, you’re ready to play fellow tournament players at your local Scrabble club. Playing in person can be nerve-wracking, especially when you’re first adjusting to hitting the timer after each turn, marking off letters on your score sheet, and other general game etiquette. But most clubs allow newbies to use cheat sheets with short word lists, and for the most part, are always willing to help you get used to the rules. Remember: this isn’t a tournament, so don’t get flustered if you add the scores incorrectly (that’s why players usually confirm totals after each turn) or lose spectacularly (it makes your first win all the more satisfying). This is still a game, and it’s supposed to be fun — once you’ve stopped kicking yourself for not using up that Q fast enough.

4. Join NASPA.

After you’ve become a club regular and have even acquired a few victories under your belt, you’re probably itching to play your first official tournament. But before you can, you have to purchase a membership at the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA). They’re the people who sanction official tournaments and even offer youth memberships at a discount. Once you’re a member, there’s no turning back. You officially have a disease called Scrabble, and the only cure is anagramming.

5. Start memorizing word lists.

You may have words like “ZA” and “QI” practically tattooed to the inside of eyelids by now, but there’s still a vast wasteland of words you still don’t know. Many professional players take to memorizing word lists, which help them anagram their tiles at an even quicker rate. There are plenty of helpful lists here to start off with, and to ensure your proficiency, download Zyzzva, a program that helps you quiz yourself on these words. Don’t try to swallow the dictionary all at once. Memorize small chunks at a time on your morning subway commute or during lunch. Instead of singing Ke$ha in the shower, belt out all the anagrams of “RETINAS.” Try it — it’s actually pretty fun.

6. Play your first tournament.

Alright, you’ve found a nearby tournament and registered, and the time has come: your first tournament. Try to imagine it’s just another game at your local club, and ignore the rating of the grandmother or insurance salesman or retired schoolteacher you’re playing against, no matter how high it is. After all, they started out at zero, too. It can be exhausting playing several games in a row, especially during a losing streak, but there’s always that next turn and the promise of playing a stellar word. You may finish the tournament in last place, but chances are, you probably learned a new word or two. I ended up winning my first tournament, only to lose every subsequent one after that. But I kept coming back. Most Scrabble players do, forming tight, competitive friendships with each other. And it would be nice to have a couple more girls my age there, just saying.

Scrabble image via author.

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