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Monday, May 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In-your-face and letter-perfect

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If you're playing to win at Scrabble, it helps to know a few tricks:

• From the word "antsier," you can make eight other seven-letter words.

• "Ai" is a three-toed sloth, "crwth" is a stringed instrument, and both words are acceptable, according to the official Scrabble dictionary.

• "Wote" is not in the dictionary - but with a good poker face, you can get away with it.

The Seattle Scrabble Club's annual regional tournament yesterday drew 55 players who know that dictionary and the game rules inside out.

Hosted at the Silver Cloud Inn near Lake Union, it was clear this was not your friendly, around-the-kitchen-table game.

Only two sounds punctuated the silence - players tallying their scores (words in the 20- to 30-point range are common) and the muted click-click of letter tiles washing against each other as players sifted through letter bags.Players hunched over their letter racks, scanning the board and trying to hit the triple-word-score square that would put them over the top. "There are not too many cavalier Scrabble players" in competitions, noted Julie Lopez of Kent, one of the organizers of yesterday's event.

Competitors played 15 games during two days and were divided into four divisions, from recreational to expert, with experts averaging 415 points a game. Some will go on to the National Scrabble Championship this summer.

The national association represents 10,000 players throughout North America, sanctioning 175 local tournaments each year. The game, first marketed 53 years ago by Hasbro, is played by making words out of letter tiles. The player with the highest score wins.

These Seattle tournament players take their Scrabble seriously. Some use flashcards or read books about the game to prepare. Others use software programs to hone their word skills.

Stefan Locher said he got to the point a few years ago "where I was regularly slaughtering the friends I played with," and he then discovered Scrabble clubs. At first, he wasn't sure how much time he wanted to devote to his new hobby.

"What kind of person studies a word list?" he wondered. Now he's that kind of person. But Locher, a Web developer, draws the line at planning vacations around Scrabble tournaments.

The tournament players are an eclectic bunch from the Seattle area and Canada - retired teachers, university professors, high-tech types, statisticians, lawyers, even a 14-year-old student from Calgary who drove straight through with his father to spend the weekend at the tournament.

Author W.P. (Bill) Kinsella runs a Scrabble chapter in Chilliwack, B.C. He has written 30-plus books, most famously "Shoeless Joe," which became the Kevin Costner movie "Field of Dreams." But he finds his literary skills don't necessarily give him an advantage.

"Words that would be a thrill to use in Scrabble" - xu or jehu, for example - aren't words most people have ever heard of, he said.

In book reviews that he writes, Kinsella often signs off by noting that he plays Scrabble frequently "but was unable to work words such as `zydeco,' `kbar' or `crwth' into this review."

Kinsella keeps a five-page list of three- and four-letter words like "amu" and "kaon" that are acceptable Scrabble words unlikely to appear in his - or anyone else's - fictional works.

"It's a bit of a neurotic thing to sit here memorizing words you've never heard of before and don't know the meaning of," admitted Judy McLean of Vancouver, B.C., where she teaches nutrition at the University of British Columbia.

"But I like the challenge of it - there's always more to learn."

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