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Words’ Worth : Scrabble Addicts Wage Lexicological Warfare

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call it Wordstock.

Three hundred avid Scrabble players--lawyers, dancers, psychologists, cab drivers--from as far away as Thailand arrived to play in the 1994 National Scrabble Championship, the 10th biennial event that kicked off Sunday at the Universal Hilton Hotel.

And if they share one thing, it’s that they take their words seriously. They memorize the dictionary in their spare time, practice against computers and study flash cards for hours.

Contestants will compete in 27 rounds through Thursday for a first-place prize of $15,000. “Tournament Scrabble players take this event as seriously as football players take the Rose Bowl,” said John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Assn. “They are like chess players or collectors of antique cars. Scrabble players are addicted in some way.

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“This event is our World Cup soccer and Woodstock all rolled into one.”

An estimated 33 million recreational Scrabble players live in the United States and Canada. Among them are more than 10,000 members of nearly 200 clubs, which meet weekly. There are 22 clubs in California.

This year’s event has attracted participants from Israel, England, Canada and Thailand. Some arrived as early as Wednesday to prepare for the competition.

“It’s rare to have a board game with this kind of following,” said Mark Morris, public relations manager for the Milton Bradley Co., the manufacturer of Scrabble.

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“We’re hoping to eventually make Scrabble tournaments as visible as chess,” Williams added. “We want people to understand the strategies, intensity and enjoyment of the game.”

Tournament divisions are broken into ranks for beginners, intermediates and experts. The most points scored in a single tournament game, 770, was chalked up last year by Mark Landsberg of Los Angeles.

Two-time national champion Joe Edley, who traveled from Long Island, N.Y., for this year’s event, has been an avid Scrabbler since 1978. He now works for the association as director of clubs and plays the game against a computer in his spare time.

“I enjoy the challenge of taking a whole bunch of letters all jumbled up and making them into words,” said Edley, the only player to twice win the national championship.

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Many players say the best part of Scrabble is “bluffing,” when a competitor uses a bogus word. Sometimes they get away with it. If there’s doubt, a challenge is called and a word expert searches in an official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

“It’s very exciting to bluff during games,” said Susan Page, a Van Nuys resident who judges cat shows for a living. “The game is a lot like poker. It keeps you on your toes.”

Tournament players often score at least one “bingo” per game. A bingo occurs when all seven letters on a player’s rack are used to make one word, earning a 50-point bonus.

“I play for the enjoyment of matching knowledge with wits,” said Gwen Bishop, a 73-year-old player from Eagle Rock who began playing Scrabble as a youngster with her family. Aside from being known as one of the oldest championship players, Bishop is the daughter of Ethel Cannon Sherard, who wrote the Double List Word Book for Scrabble players.

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Twelve-year-old Daniel Goldman, who came to California from New York with his father, says he began playing Scrabble two years ago against his father’s friends.

“I usually won the games,” said the younger Goldman, who is competing against 40- and 50-year-old players this week. “This competition is fun because I could win a lot of money.”

“The best thing about Scrabble is that anyone, any age can play, even if they don’t know the meaning of the words they’re using,” said Beth Fleischer of Hacienda Heights. “It’s a game for all trades.”


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