THE SEATTLE SCRABBLE CLUB’S version of Scrabble is not your grandmother’s version. Unless your grandmother is like Midori Howard. “I’m very competitive,” she tells me as she prepares for a game on a recent Tuesday at the University Friends Meeting House in the U District.
Howard used to be an avid tennis player, and a fellow player introduced her to competitive Scrabble. “After a few years, I said goodbye to tennis,” she says. “I’m still coming here.”
I meet Howard and other players as they arrive early to set up tables, chairs and timers. They have individually designed custom game boards with revolving platforms that allow players to easily rotate the boards between them.
Scrabble combines language, strategy and numbers into a multifaceted contest that appeals to brainy folks like these.
“There’s strategy, there’s skill and there’s luck,” says Rebecca Slivka, the club’s current director. That’s literally the luck of the draw: The letter tiles a given player randomly pulls out of a cloth bag will affect that player’s chances of winning. “Even the top players can still lose,” she says.
Scrabble is cheap and doesn’t require a lot of specialized equipment. The basic rules are not complicated, even as winning isn’t easy.
It’s also a classic game with a long history. This club has been meeting almost every week since the mid-1980s — not long after the first national Scrabble tournament and the first publication of an official Scrabble dictionary.
“Usually, people start coming to the club because they get so good that no one else will play with them,” Slivka says. They’re often surprised to lose big during their first visit; those who love that kind of challenge keep coming. But even as they improve, it’s not necessarily about winning. “There are people who don’t win very much but still come quite a bit,” she says.
The recent rise of online word games means more ways to play and more new players, but it’s hurt in-person Scrabble; numbers have dropped off a bit in recent years. Club members keep coming because there’s something special about facing your opponent in real life. Besides, in-person Scrabble brings advantages the online version doesn’t, from table talk to tense tournaments to longtime friendships.
Like a few others I talked to, George Bissonnette discovered competitive Scrabble when he read Stefan Fatsis’ book on the subject, “Word Freak,” which suggests that Scrabble-obsessed folks check out their local clubs.
“You meet people from all walks of life,” says Bissonnette, who also makes custom boards for his fellow players. “You get to know people, and it’s a lot of fun.”
He and his wife, Jane, joined a Manhattan Scrabble club while they were on vacation in New York. “It’s really a national or even international community.”
Dan Goodwin, one of the region’s top-ranked players, patiently taught me a few of the finer points of competitive Scrabble. His brain loves the challenge of untangling and organizing the chaos of random letters in his rack. He’s even created his own system for meticulously keeping score.
Goodwin has played in tournaments all over the world as well as in regional tournaments held throughout the Northwest a few times a year. He’s also joined group travel adventures where participants take Scrabble breaks from sightseeing.
“It has been one of the things that’s given shape to my life,” he says.