Think you can vie with Scrabble connoisseur?
A word to the wise: Playing Scrabble with a man who owns a personalized Scrabble board is a losing proposition.
Aspen resident Jeremy Simon owns such a board and keeps it protected with a specially made olive-green cover. He also has a Scrabble dictionary and refers to J, Q, X and Z as “power tiles” because they each score between 8 and 10 points.
Since Jeremy is coordinating this year’s only Scrabble tournament in Colorado – later this month in Denver – it seemed appropriate that we would play. Jeremy – ranked 650th out of North American players – and I, utterly unranked. met at Zele Cafe, where the site of a Scrabble match isn’t so rare because a local Scrabble club meets there each Monday.
I was in way over my head, but it was too late. Jeremy’s analog chess clock began ticking away the moment I started to squint at my seven chosen tiles, and all I could muster was the word FAME. 18 points.
Jeremy threw down the word AZAN and offered me a free challenge – looking up the word in the dictionary and not losing a turn – when he saw the doubt on my face. Trusting the seasoned Scrabble player, I decided against a challenge, but regretted it when Jeremy said he doesn’t know what “azan” means.
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A week later, I looked the word up in the official Scrabble dictionary online – Azan: noun, “a Muslim call to prayer.”
Yikes. Jeremy may have guessed, but he guessed right – that time for 31 points. Twenty-seven moves later and I had had one of my best games ever, offering words like QUARTS, GEODE and VIOLA, and winding up with 217 points.
Jeremy’s words included QUAG, MOTLIER and BIER, and he ended the game with 467 points. Jeremy didn’t look too impressed with his score, but that’s not surprising for someone whose highest score ever is 609.
That’s a score he remembers getting with five “bingo” moves – that’s using all seven tiles at once. He spelled EQUINOX and TURNIPS, among other blockbusters.
The competitive world of Scrabble playing is one that Jeremy knows well, having moved to Aspen from New York, where he first tried his hand at tournaments after regularly beating his relatives at the game. These days, he know virtually every two- and three-letter word in existence.
His favorite word is TUP. You’ll have to look up the verb form of this word in the dictionary, because this is a family friendly article.
Most serious Scrabble competitors are left-brained rather than right, preferring the statistics of the letter combinations and points rather than creating fancy words. These players don’t even look at the game as creating words on the board, but rather as putting down combinations of game pieces.
“It’s not about the impressiveness of the words, it’s about recognizing the premium spaces,” Jeremy said. That was clear when he showed me how to use an X in just the right spot to create XI, a letter in the Greek alphabet that wound up awarding me 54 points.
And the rules that Jeremy and other competitive players use are intricate regulations I’d never heard of. You can’t spell out the name of a country, but you can use the name of any country’s currency. Phonetic spellings of Hebrew words are kosher, but use of any foreign word is a judgment call.
And SI is the alternative spelling of TI on the diatonic scale, Jeremy said.
Wars of words
Just when I think he could say anything about competitive scrabble and I’d believe it, he tells me a story when he was once duped by a fellow player. In the first game he ever played competitively, his opponent opened the match with the word BINNEY.
Jeremy, too intimidated to challenge his opponent, let the word pass and found out later it’s not a word. Of course, Jeremy went on to win the game.
There are all sorts of people at Scrabble tournaments, from “punky teenagers” to grandmothers who have their own competitive finesse, he said.
“All the people at Scrabble tournaments have a competitive kernel inside of them,” he said. “An 85-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair will smile at you so sweetly while she kicks your ass.”
Jeremy moved to Aspen for a job at the Aspen Music Festival and School. He hopes that the upcoming Denver Scrabble tournament becomes the biggest in the Rockies, and so far he has 35 committed players.
Local Scrabble clubs meet throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, including at Zele Cafe on Monday nights at 7 p.m., and at the Glenwood Springs Community Center on the first, third and last Thursdays of each month at 7 p.m. for $3 per person.