Spelling victory, one tile at a time.
Silence in Bond Place Hotel’s basement is punctuated with what could be mistaken for the shakings of a rhythmically challenged maraca player.
It’s the sound 52 of Canada’s top Scrabble players make shuffling tiny plastic tiles in pouches as they draw letters on this warm Saturday afternoon.
Each competitor is vying for the $7,000 grand prize at the four-day 2016 Canadian National Scrabble Championship, and their alphabetical yield plays no small part in determining their fate.
“I think the reason for the enduring success of Scrabble is it can be played at many, many different levels,” explains John Chew, the North American Scrabble Players Association’s co-president and director of this 18-round tourney.
“You can play it with your kids to teach them how to spell. You can play it in a bar with friends making up just crazy words,” he says, adding, “You can take it to the extreme limit and see how difficult you can make it and how challenging you can make it, and that’s what we’re looking at right here.”
This is the ninth time NASPA has organized the Hasbro-sponsored event, held every few years since 1996. It’s an invite-only tournament, open exclusively to Canadian citizens and permanent residents who qualify based on past results at other NASPA-sanctioned events.
From suburban Moncton, New Brunswick, to Richmond, BC, gamers find their way here. Entrants include heavyweights like Adam Logan, who on top of four Canadian championship titles won the 2005 World Scrabble Championship.
“What keeps me involved is the continuing challenge,” says Logan, leading the pack at the time. “What drew me to it was…an early fascination with language and rearranging letters,” he adds.
When Chew gives Torontoist a rundown of the tournament hall’s 26-board setup, two players leave their table. “They’re going over to the word judge,” Chew explains.
Actually, the judge is a laptop computer. A competitor types the word in question: cami. It’s fair game, the judge—or screen—decrees. The player who thought otherwise loses a turn. Had he been right, his opponent would’ve instead.
“Cami” is just one of about 186,000 entries ranging from two to 15 letters included in The Official Tournament and Club Word List, a hefty blue tome underlining what can be played at the these championships and what can’t. A larger text with about 30 per cent more words, The Collins Official Scrabble Wordlist, is used outside North America, Isreal, and Thailand, Chew explains.
“They have a lot of things that we make fun of them for that are, like, Shakespearean misprints that only occurred in one edition of a Shakespearean folio, or Chaucerian English from back before there was a concept of an English dictionary,” he says. But like the club word list, Collins’ doesn’t include anything with capital letters or punctuation.
Torontoist is the only spectator on hand Saturday as players place tiles on boards and record moves on game sheets they’ll later submit to the organizers. Seated in front of a large monitor projecting tournament results, however, Chew says hundreds—possibly thousands—are watching the games online and will be able to do so through the finals on Monday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Wordplay here isn’t limited to the boards, virtual or otherwise. After the day’s third-last round, players Adam Stardom and Heidi Robertson, both from Ottawa, kibitz at table 14. Stardom questions Robertson’s use of the word “unretained”—and, seemingly, the word itself.
To justify herself, Robertson uses the word in a sentence: “Unretained applications will be shredded,” she says. Stardom asks, “Will your game sheet be unretained after the game?”