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7 Incredible Things You Didn’t Know About Professional Scrabble

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Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground, by John D. Williams, is a merry exploration of the intriguing, eccentric, and sometimes brutal world of professional SCRABBLE play. Few are better qualified to tell the story than Williams, who was a key figure in establishing the World Scrabble Championship, and who helped move the game from living rooms to ESPN. Here are seven things Word Nerd reveals about the pitiless game of Scrabble.

1. Scrabble is the one time when you hope the NSA is listening.

The National Scrabble Association (previously, Scrabble Brand Crossword Game Players, Inc.) was responsible for oversight of hundreds of official clubs dedicated to the game; scheduling tournaments and tracking player ratings; and promoting the game in general. Perhaps its most visible role was in maintaining the Official Tournament and Club Word List—the words considered fair play in the game (which sometimes differs from the Scrabble dictionary, especially as it relates to profanity, which is officially allowed; if you can think it, you can probably play it). Today, the NSA is organized as the North American Scrabble Players’ Association.

2. Everyone at a Scrabble tournament knows what an umiaq is! (Even if spellcheck doesn’t.)

Archaic words such as “umiaq” (an Eskimo canoe) and “qiviut” (the wool of a musk-ox) aren’t useful in casual conversation, but are extremely valuable on the Scrabble board. Moreover, such words occasionally have alternate spellings, making them doubly valuable to a professional player. (An Eskimo might also ride on an umiak, an oomiac, or an oomiack.) In Word Nerd, Williams brings up the word “rei,” noted as “the most indefensible word in the game.” Its meaning: “An erroneous English form for a former Portuguese coin.”

3. Facebook has complicated the creation of words.

As Williams explains, there’s a long journey before a word becomes a word. It begins with “reading and marking,” in which dictionary editors scour magazines and journals ranging in quality from The New Yorker to People. They are searching for “good examples of words used in context.” New words, new inflections, and new spellings of old words that are discovered are entered into a citation database. Once a word logs enough usage, it becomes eligible for consideration by dictionary editors. (A word’s reach is long; the database has been going for over a century now, and contains more than 16 million words.) The growth of social media has complicated things. Words proliferate at a much faster rate; where they generally had a dictionary inclusion lag time of 10 to 20 years, words are now formalized in as few as five years.

4. Words are purged.

Through the second edition, the Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary contained profanity and racial slurs. “After all,” Williams writes, “lexicographers cannot pretend a word does not exist just because someone doesn’t like it.” When the Anti-Defamation League accused Hasbro of “playing games with hate,” the company’s CEO capitulated and ordered the dictionary scrubbed. Deleting words, however, isn’t as easy as one might think. What is a slur, after all? Aside from the obvious ones, lexicographers explained that such words as “Jesuit” (“a scheming person”) and “papist” (“a Roman Catholic”) were considered slurs for centuries. Likewise, a word like “welsh,” which has “the same connotation as ‘Jew’ used as a verb.” To the outrage of many, the third edition of the dictionary removed roughly 175 “offensive” words. A compromise was reached with the National Scrabble Association, allowing the purged words to remain in official play by establishing the Official Tournament and Club Word List.

5. Hollywood is a mixed bag.

Jack Black is a confirmed Scrabble devotee, as is Martha Stewart, who joked that while in prison she had a lot of time to improve her game. Jimmy Kimmel has won charity tournaments, and every year invites the winners of the National School Scrabble Championships onto his show, where he plays against them on television. (He plays to win, vowing not to stop “until every child in America has been destroyed.”) It’s not all good news in Hollywood; Scrabble players were disappointed by the movie The Wedding Planner, whose depiction of Scrabble tournaments was connected to reality only in that tiles were used.

6. Scrabble tournaments are serious business.

Williams describes professional Scrabble players as a cordial bunch, but as intense as the athletes of any sport. By the game’s peak in 2004, the National Scrabble Championship had grown from 32 players to over 800. That kind of meteoric growth is going to include some eccentrics, from the champion who practices tai chi between rounds to the experts scoffing at the “lesser” competitors “playing up.” The winner of a national championship will take home $10,000 and possibly end up on television morning shows. Outside of the national and world championships, however, the game can be taken just as seriously. The National Scrabble Association once received a letter from a prison inmate asking for an Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary. It seems a dispute over the admissibility of a word resulted in an inmate being stabbed in the eye with the pencil used for keeping score.

7. The Internet ruined everything.

For decades, top players meticulously assembled lists of obscure but valuable words, and devoted countless hours to studying, if not memorizing, the Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary. (No small achievement; there are over 100,000 words in said dictionary.) Building lists was an important strategy to compete at the highest level. The Internet made list building a matter of googling “words that end in ‘ck’” and reading the results. This undercut the game’s most devoted players. Apps made things even worse. As any player of Scrabble rip-off Words With Friends can attest, the easiest way to win is to arrange letters on the board until something works. Unlike in actual Scrabble, there is no penalty for playing a false word. An extraordinary play like MBAQANGA, then, is not the result of any particular interest or devotion to the game, but rather, a fortunate assembly of letters that happened to be accepted by the computer. (The official Scrabble app has the same shortcoming.) Scrabble’s online faltering had repercussions beyond that. In 2013, Hasbro (Scrabble’s owner) bought the rights to manufacture a Words With Friends board game. The reason? So that they might have a “Scrabble-type board game for the next generation.” As Williams wrote, “You already have one, man. You already have one.”

Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
A New Game Show Helps Contestants Pay Off Their Student Loans
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV
Jeremy Freeman, TruTV

Most game shows offer flashy prizes—a trip to Maui, a million dollars, or a brand new car—but TruTV’s latest venture is giving away something much more practical: the opportunity to get out of student loan debt. Set to premiere July 10 on TruTV, Paid Off is designed to help contestants with college degrees win hard cash to put towards their loan payments, MarketWatch reports.

The show gives college graduates with student loan debt "the chance to test the depth of their degrees in a fun, fast-paced trivia game show,” according to TruTV’s description. In each episode, three contestants compete in rounds of trivia, with one contestant eliminated each round.

One Family Feud-style segment asks contestants to guess the most popular answer to college-related poll questions like “What’s the best job you can have while in college?” (Answer: Server.) Other segments test contestants' general trivia knowledge. In one, for example, a contestant is given 20 seconds to guess whether certain characters are from Goodfellas or the children’s show Thomas & Friends. Some segments also give them the chance to answer questions related to their college major.

Game show host Michael Torpey behind a podium

Based on the number of questions they answer correctly, the last contestant standing can win enough money to pay off the entirety of their student debt. (However, like most game shows, all prizes are taxable, so they won't take home the full amount they win.)

Paid Off was created by actor Michael Torpey, who is best known for his portrayal of the sadistic corrections officer Thomas Humphrey in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Torpey, who also hosts the show, says the cause is personal to him.

“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because—true story—I booked an underpants commercial,” Torpey says in the show’s pilot episode. “But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there just aren’t that many underpants commercials. That is why I made this game show.”

The show is likely to draw some criticism for its seemingly flippant handling of a serious issue that affects roughly one in four Americans. But according to Torpey, that’s all part of the plan. The host told MarketWatch that the show is designed “to be so stupid that the people in power look at it and say, ‘That guy is making us look like a bunch of dum dums, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Paid Off will premiere on Tuesday, July 10 at 10 p.m. Eastern time (9 p.m. Central time).

[h/t MarketWatch]

Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]


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