Sunday, May 29, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Don't wirra, its meaning is irrelevant

Seattle Times staff reporter

Scrabble information

To watch

Seattle Scrabble Tournament, spectators welcome, 9:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. today, 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. tomorrow, Red Lion Hotel, 1415 Fifth Ave., Seattle.

Watch a trailer for the movie "Word Wars," a documentary about Scrabble competition loosely based on the best-seller "Word Freak."

To play

National SCRABBLE Association Club #253

The Seattle Club meets every Tuesday, starting at 6 p.m., University Friends Meeting House, 4001 Ninth Ave N.E.

National Scrabble Association

Scrabble FAQ

Zooid. Howp. Yonic. Wirra. Knurl. Feijoas.

No, there's nothing wrong with the spell checker. Each is a perfectly good word.

These and more prosaic combinations of letters are being laid down on turntables at the downtown Red Lion Hotel, where more than 100 competitors have gathered to match wits and words at the 17th annual Seattle Scrabble Tournament.

The tournament, which this year changed venues to accommodate a growing following, ends tomorrow, one of eight around the country this weekend sanctioned by the National Scrabble Association (NSA). Thousands of "word freaks" were expected to participate nationwide.

First, a few rules, so as not to disturb the participants' concentration in case you visit: Turn off all cellphones and pagers before entering the third-floor playing room, and no kibitzing.

Then brace yourself for the likes of doux, feit, emf and fug. Don't worry. In many cases, the players have no clue what the words mean, either. What counts is that they appear in NSA's official Tournament and Club Word List, a 473-page book that lists words but not definitions.

It's the bible when it comes to "challenges" — in which one player accuses an opponent of using a made-up word. It's risky, because an unfounded challenge costs the accuser his turn.

And so it was yesterday, when Bill Kinsella (yes that Bill Kinsella, the British Columbia author whose book "Shoeless Joe Jackson" was turned into the movie "Field of Dreams") decided to challenge Rafi Stern's word "ainsell." Unfortunately for Kinsella, the word was in the Bible.

Kinsella, who estimates he has participated in more than 70 tournaments over the last several years, later figured it might have cost him the game.

"I thought he was trying to put one over on me," said Kinsella, who recently turned 70. "These kids are often like that."

Stern, 15 and a sophomore at Nathan Hale High, is playing in what he said was his fourth tournament. He said he likes to play "because I'm good at it" and because there's money in it — a reference to the $6,100 that will be distributed among the top four finishers in each of six divisions.

Scrabble experts say that those who excel at the game have an aptitude for math as well as a command of words.

"It's a game of probabilities — of thinking through what you need to do to win the game," said Joe Edley, NSA's director of clubs and tournaments. As the game progresses, there are fewer and fewer possibilities and letters left, he said.

Experts will keep track of letters, see what's left, and make an educated guess on which play will give the better odds of winning, Edley said.

Stern, who takes advanced calculus at school, appears to fit the bill. Acknowledging that "there's probability and stuff," he notes that it can be foolish to go for a bigger score if the play leaves you with the wrong combination of letters — too many consonants or too many vowels.

The better move, he explained, might be to settle for fewer points but leave yourself in better shape to score big on your next turn.

Stern, who was the top seed in Division 4, had won three games and lost one before lunch yesterday.

It's too late to register to compete in this tournament, in which everyone will play 20 games round-robin style. Tomorrow, there will be a "king of the hill" game to determine the final standings. Anyone who pays $20 to join NSA can enter a future tournament.

The association is the marketing arm of the game's domestic manufacturer, Hasbro, which sells about 2 million Scrabble sets a year in the United States and Canada, Edley said.

Scrabble has been around in its present form since 1948. Its popularity is stronger than ever, Edley said, partly because of the popularity of "Word Freak," published in 2002 and written by Wall Street Journal reporter Stefan Fatsis.

Edley, who said he served as Fatsis' mentor, said the game got another boost from "Word Wars," a documentary film based on the book that tracked four players as they participated in various tournaments. He said they included a stand-up comedian, a hothead from East Baltimore, a Maalox-chugging guy who lives on a trust fund, and Edley himself, a self-described "Zen master" type.

Daval Davis of Bellevue and Ellen Lin of Seattle were among the local players yesterday who said that Fatsis' book helped push them to join the Seattle Scrabble Club and participate in their first tournament. "We got serious when we started playing each other," Davis said.

Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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