Hanging on every word: North American Scrabble champion crowned in Baltimore as game turns spectator sport

July 29, 2022

Baltimore Sun

Contemplative murmurs gave way to a chorus of realization and shouts as spectators watched the action unfold. Several clapped. One announced: “I think we have a new champion, everybody.”

Orry Swift, the No. 2 rated Scrabble player in North America, had laid down the word “FER,” and in doing so — as the more than 100 spectators watching on a livestream in an adjacent room noticed — left room for opponent Michael Fagen to play “LEVIRATES.”

That final play left Swift with his hand on his forehead and Fagen as the 2022 Scrabble Players champion.

Buoyed by the support of an impassioned Maryland state senator, Scrabble enthusiasts from 42 states and nine countries descended this week on Baltimore for the board game’s North American championships. The two finalists competed head-to-head in a best-of-five series Wednesday at the Marriott Inner Harbor for a $10,000 first prize and bragging rights as the continent’s top word nerd.

Swift, a 35-year-old accounting professor at Lamar University in Texas and also a nationally ranked “Magic: The Gathering” card player, spent roughly eight hours a day for the past month preparing for the tournament, studying a list of more than 100,000 approved words.

“This is definitely the biggest event in Scrabble all year, period,” he said.

Nearly 300 competitors, over 31 matches a player

Democratic state Sen. Cheryl Kagan of Montgomery County is an avid fan of the crossword-style board game in which competitors form words with individual letters. She plays online daily.

When she attended the North American championship in 2019 in Reno, Nevada, she lobbied the leadership of the North American Scrabble Players Association to bring the tournament to Maryland.

In coordination with Visit Baltimore, the association scheduled the next year’s event in Baltimore, but it canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, nearly 300 competitors, who each paid a $200 entry fee, played the popular word game in Charm City.

Over the course of five days, competitors played at least 31 matches, which Kagan called “exhausting and exhilarating.”

The rules are the same as a casual game — in which players draw tiles with letters from a bag, then form words that fit into a crossword grid — with a few exceptions. Those include that: competitors must lift the bag of letters above their line of sight when drawing; challenges to words that may not be legitimate are checked using an official database on a laptop, not a dictionary; and each player is granted a timed 25 minutes of play per game.

After dozens of preliminary matches, the finalists faced off for the title.

Fagen, 27, topped Swift three games to one, winning the final game in an exceptional manner. With only seven tiles in each player’s possession per turn, using them all is a strong move. When such a “bingo” happens, players get not only points for each letter they use, but a bonus for using all their tiles. Creating an eight-letter word (by building off a letter already on the board) is difficult, and creating a nine-letter word is so rare that players can go dozens of games without one.

Fagen played two nine-letter words, “COEQUATES” and “LEVIRATES,” in the match to clinch the championship. The latter means “the custom of marrying the widow of one’s brother,” according to Merriam-Webster’s online Scrabble Word Finder.

“I never thought I’d make it to the finals,” said Fagen, the No. 28 seed in the tournament.

Shortly after his sensational victory at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Fagen had to catch a 5:30 p.m. train. When he’d bought his tickets, the prospect of competing for the title seemed so slim that he didn’t consider he’d play so late into the day. He really only thought about whether he’d get to watch all of the championship games.

Fagen’s mother had even suggested last month that he skip the tournament, after his direct flight from his native Montreal was canceled. He told her that wasn’t an option, especially after the event’s two year hiatus, and booked a 10-hour ride on Greyhound to New York City, followed by a three-hour train trip to Baltimore.

He told his mother: “There’s no alternative to this.”

‘A beautiful microcosm of life’

Ahead of the final match, Fagen noted all that he was playing for: “the trophy and the fame and the huge check.”

He won the $10,000 grand prize while Swift, who said winning the championship is on his “bucket list,” took $4,000 for second place.

Austin Shin, who won first place in a different division — one that used a more expansive word list — was awarded $3,000. A pivotal moment in that championship bout came when Shin’s opponent played “KYROLITE,” which is not legal, instead of “KRYOLITE,” an alternate spelling of the mineral cryolite.

It’s hardly about the money, though, as few competitors profit on the venture. The event’s attraction is more about the competition, the challenge and the camaraderie. Much of the tournament had the feel of a reunion, not a rivalry.

“It’s like a braid, a beautiful tapestry, and it’s all of those things together,” said Robin Pollock Daniel, a Toronto resident who’s competed for 35 years and remains one of the top players. “To untwine it to one aspect of it diminishes the other and I don’t want to do that. It’s the totality of it. It’s the gestalt of it.”

Scrabble was invented in 1938 and, by the late 1970s, competitive play picked up steam. In 1980, Joe Edley won the second-ever North American championship, and he did so again in 1992 and 2000. He flew this year from San Francisco to compete at age 74, placing fifth overall.

Along the way, Scrabble became a spectator sport, albeit with a limited audience. As Fagen and Swift did battle in the finals, more than 100 players watched the match feed — complete with two commentators and five camera angles — hanging on every word. Another few hundred watched the stream online.

Though some at this week’s tournament still play relaxed games elsewhere, for the ultracompetitive like Swift, it’s impossible. His rating is above 2000, ranking him among the best, and his approach is too premeditated to be compatible with a casual setting. His only opponents are other elite contenders.

“I don’t play with friends,” he said. “That is not a thing that you can do once you’ve set foot in this room.”

The big-time competitors are that zealous. One top player, whose name starts with a J, wore a T-shirt with an image of a J tile on it. Another top player, whose name also starts with a J, had an image of the J tile tattooed on his shoulder.

Many described the game’s challenge as its allure; it’s up to the individual to make sense of a row of random letters. The enjoyment lies in the satisfaction, and there are innumerable lessons to be learned, several players said. Edley pointed to life’s parallels: You might not draw the tiles you’d hoped to, but it’s up to you to choose what to do with them.

Said Pollock Daniel: “It’s such a beautiful microcosm of life, this game.”

To hear Scrabble enthusiasts discuss strategy — which they often do, immediately after a match — is to hear jargon about opening or closing the board, playing offensively or defensively, and chatter about swings in probability.

Though it’s a word game, Swift said it’s more mathematical than literary. He does not read books for pleasure, yet he studies words daily and has memorized thousands and thousands of words — he confidently played “GYTTJA” in the final — without knowing their definitions. (In case you need to know, Scrabble Word Finder says it’s “an organically rich mud.”)

“It is intellectual,” Kagan said of the game, “it is mathematic, it is logic, it is strategy, it is word knowledge, it is anagramming, and it’s luck.”

As the nearly weeklong event came to a close and prizes were bestowed upon winners in different categories, those gathered clapped to show their support for the winners of the game they love.

Two people, in the very back of the room, set up a board even as they celebrated the winners.

There was more Scrabble to be played.