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Countywide : Scrabble Tournament Presents W-O-R-D-Y Challenge

The small room, situated above the closed bank, was silent except for the constant tick, tick, tick of the time clocks. Like assembly-line workers, the Scrabble players lined opposite sides of the table and rarely lifted their eyes from their game boards.

Concentration intact, the seasoned players didn’t flinch when one player, skeptical of an opponent’s move, suddenly shouted: “Challenge!”

It is tournament weekend for the Huntington Beach Scrabble Club, and the members were getting in a few games before the competition.

People from all over the world are expected to vie for top honors at the annual West Coast event that starts today in Irvine. The tournament is sponsored by the Huntington Beach Club.

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For club President Penny Baker and about 90 people expected to compete, Scrabble is not just a game--it’s a lifestyle. “I think Scrabble has replaced sex,” said Baker, who quit her sales job to devote more time to the sport. “It is a blast.”

True Scrabble gurus such as Baker, who spends about 50 hours a week playing the game, coordinating events and running two Scrabble clubs, never stray far from their “bible,” the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

Many travel around the country, constantly in search of the perfect word. Most spend hours studying unusual word spellings and strategies. All talk is in “Scrabblese.”

Taxi driver Steve Grob of Michigan, considered an expert with a rating of 1,800 points, got in some practice Thursday night with Bob Fancett, another expert player who came from Vancouver, Canada, for the competition. Amid rows of Scrabble boards, letter tiles and dictionaries, the two locked heads at the club’s weekly Thursday night meeting, trying to outdo each other with such words as rotl and aquavit.

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The object of the game is to have the most points after all 100 letters have been placed on the board. The players are given 25 minutes to get rid of their letters. But expert players such as Grob and Fancett also trace every letter that has been played to deny opponents any advantage.

“This is the weak part of my game,” Grob mutters while Fancett scans his pile of letters. With only five minutes left on the time clock and the letter bag nearly empty, he played conservatively by plunking down a three-letter word. It was enough to win.

As the two continued to spar, conversation around them drifted from the current revision of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, which some call a “travesty,” to “bingo,” which is the use of all seven letters in one turn.

More than $3,000 in prize money will be up for grabs this weekend.

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The bulk of the Scrabble competitors will come from the western United States including Nevada, Utah and Washington. A few hail from Japan and New Zealand.

Stu Goldman of San Francisco, who swept last year’s tournament and the $300 grand prize, once again will be on hand.

Goldman, a retired schoolteacher, considers the board game his career.

“It is a definite subculture,” Goldman said. “I love it.”

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