Word freaks do what they love

A competitive Scrabble game starts like any other.

During the last match of the tournament, Travis Chaney of Ashland and Nathan Benedict of Tucson, Ariz., squared off for second place. Chaney began the match with "Q-[blank]-E-M-E," an archaic verb meaning "to please."

Benedict returned the volley by using the blank "U" to spell out "dully" vertically.

As the game progressed, Chaney scored a "bingo" by using all seven letters in his tray to spell out "tertians." That play alone was worth 243 points after the 50-point bingo bonus and triple-word score.

On Saturday and Sunday, the only sound in the Crystal Room of the Ashland Springs Hotel was the quiet rattle of Scrabble players removing letter tiles from velour bags during the West Coast World Championship Wordlist Challenge.

Six contestants came from across North America to compete, but this was no ordinary Scrabble tournament. Unlike other tournaments in North America, this competition used as its word source Collins Scrabble Words — the international standard for Scrabble competitions.

"I just wish we'd go over to the world list so we don't have this confusion," competition winner Dave Wiegand said, "It's pretty hard to keep the words straight."

The British Collins dictionary has about 90,000 more words than the Official Tournament Word List used in the United States. Wiegand said the additional word choices lead to higher scores.

"I've had about six games over 500 (points) today," Wiegand said, adding that he usually scores between 420 and 430 points per game using the American dictionary.

The rules are otherwise consistent with other American tournaments. Each player has a timer similar to ones used at chess tournaments, and is allotted 25 minutes of play time per regulation game.

Despite the quiet and competitive atmosphere, a handful of passers-by stopped in to observe the competition.

Steve Neuberger, an Ashland resident, observed the tournament after seeing a film at the Varsity. He described the atmosphere of the competition as "very serious, very serious."

"I would not want to be at the table with any of these dudes," Neuberger said, "Within seconds, I saw somebody play a bingo."

"I feel humbled," said observer Curt Evans, "I'm impressed with how quickly they do it." Evans plans to visit the weekly practice sessions held Sunday afternoons by the Ashland Scrabble Club

Competitive Scrabble players train rigorously between events to stay sharp.

"The time they spend studying words is huge," said tournament organizer Mandy Valencia. She added that her husband, Travis Chaney, studies word lists about 4 hours a day.

"When I get up, I play against the computer at a low level. That's to wake up," Stu Goldman said. Goldman has been playing Scrabble competitively since 1973. After breakfast, he plays more challenging programs designed to practice bingos, or against the computer at the most difficult setting.

"I usually don't prepare for a particular tournament. I study all the time," Benedict said. Benedict earns his living playing Poker competitively.

The players' reasons for traveling from Canada or Arizona are simple: they love the game.

"I've made a lot of friends. I've been to a lot of interesting places," Stu Goldman said. Goldman has been playing competitively since the fall of 1973 and adds, "it helps keep me young."

"It's different every time because the board is different," contestant Tapani Lindgren said. A native of Finland, Lindgren had the least experience of all of the contestants. People who learn English as a second language can still play competitive Scrabble well because "some of the words we have to learn are unknown to English speakers."

Although they enjoy the game, most avoid Scrabble with friends and family.

"I definitely can't play with friends or family anymore," Benedict said.

"It's hard to separate from that killer instinct," Wiegand said, "social players aren't that cutthroat."

Those interested in playing Scrabble competitively can attend weekly meetings Sunday afternoons from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Beanery in Ashland. For more information, contact Chaney at 227-9633 or travischaney@jeffnet.org.

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