Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winning has seven letters

At Winnipeg's Scrabble club, the zaniest play is often the best

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Is that a Scrabble tile in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

At the 2012 National Scrabble Championships, a 15-year-old contestant was given the B-O-O-T for cheating. The youth, who organizers wouldn't name because of his age, hid a blank tile somewhere on his person prior to a second-round match.

A competitor at a nearby table observed the infraction and alerted officials.

"People love the game and love to go by the rules, but every once in a while we deal with a behaviour problem," said John Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association. "But we're not at the point where we're testing for steroids or anything."

Linda Pearn and Julie Kading are directors for the Winnipeg Scrabble Club, a group of wordsmiths who gather on Thursday evenings at the Kenaston Village Recreation Centre, located at 516 Kenaston Blvd. Neither Pearn nor Kading can recall an incident of intentional cheating during the club's 18-year history. But that doesn't mean they don't expect club members to follow the rules of Scrabble, which turned 75 this year, to the letter.

"When you're drawing new tiles, for example, you can't hold the bag below the table," Kading says, demonstrating the proper technique: bag at shoulder level, gaze averted.

"It should also be held away from your body, so that your opponent can see your face at all times. It's like what they say about lawyers: you can't just say you're honest. You have to appear to be honest, too."


Kading, who has never met an X she didn't like, joined the Winnipeg Scrabble Club in 1998, back when get-togethers were staged in the lounge area of a restaurant on Erin Street. The group transferred to its current digs about 12 years ago after membership topped the 40-mark. (The Winnipeg Scrabble Club falls under the jurisdiction of the National Scrabble Association, an organization that oversees close to 150 like-minded guilds across North America, including one in Brandon.)

"We average in the neighbourhood of 15 to 18 players, per night," says Pearn, who signed on a couple of years after Kading. "Our main room can fit 24 but we also have access to a second area if everybody shows up, or if we're staging a tournament."

Game night works like this: people start arriving at 6:30 p.m. There is no set schedule. Instead, members square off against whoever shows up around the same time. Games are on the clock, not unlike speed chess. Each competitor gets 25 minutes. If you get stuck on a word and need a few extra seconds, you lose 10 points for every extra minute you go over.

Once a game is in the books, participants look around to see who else is ready for their next opponent. The club has the room until 10 p.m. Most players manage to fit in four games. The only cost involved -- aside from those who arrive with personal, custom-made, Scrabble boards - is a $3, nightly fee to cover rent.

"The age range is quite large -- everyone from people in their late 20s to a gentleman in his 80s," Pearn says.

Backgrounds are equally varied. At any given moment you might be seated across from a professor, a dentist, a horticulturist... even a person who writes crossword puzzles for a living.

What is consistent, however, is the level of play. Three members, including Kading and Pearn, competed in the 2013 National Scrabble Championship, which was held in Las Vegas. Others are familiar faces at regional set-tos, like ones held in Regina and Calgary in September.

Just don't fret if you're a newbie like Delores Dueck, who began attending a few weeks ago after finding out about the club on the Internet. One of the first things organizers did after greeting Dueck at the door was hand her a piece of paper listing every acceptable, two-letter word, as per The Official Scrabble Word-Finder.

"They told me I could feel free to use it for the first month or so," Dueck says, showing a scribe her cheat sheet, which includes head-scratchers like sh, aa and bo. "I find it really comes in handy when you're trying to attach letters to another word, to get extra points."

Colin Viebrock joined the Winnipeg Scrabble Club in 2011, after moving to Manitoba from Toronto. Viebrock has since become the club's resident statistician. At the end of each night, he gathers all of the game sheets, which list winners, spreads (how much one person beat another by) and bingos. The latter is the term used when somebody is able to employ all seven tiles in a single move.

Viebrock enters the information onto a spreadsheet then posts the results on the club's website, A quick glance at last week's numbers tells us the high score of the evening was 516. And that "zaniest" was the word that netted the most points -- 100.

"Some people are interested in seeing how they've improved over time -- or seeing how they match up against a particular person," Viebrock says, noting every member is also assigned a number rating that works a bit like a golfer's handicap.

"Keeping track of people's ratings helps when they register for tournaments. Most (tournaments) are split into divisions based on skill, so you end up playing against people who are roughly the same level as you."

Another statistic Viebrock tracks is phonies -- that is, words that get played that aren't genuine words.

"There is a computer in the room you can use to challenge your opponent if you don't think what they put down is real, or is misspelled," Pearn says. "But if you're way behind in a game, sometimes it's good strategy to coffee-house."

Coffee-house? Come again? "That's a polite term for fibbing," Pearn explains.

Case in point: a couple of weeks ago, one club veteran meant to spell out "mescaline." Except after placing his letters on the board, he realized he was short one E. Instead of apologizing for his miscue, the fellow left "mescalin" on the board stating, "If only I had an S, I could have made it plural and gotten even more points."

It turned out his opponent had an S, which he promptly placed on the board. At which point the first person called him on it, saying, "Sorry, but mescalin isn't a word." (The guy who played the S lost his turn, while mescalin-man got to keep his points.)

Anybody who loves Scrabble is welcome, Pearn and Kading say. They just shouldn't make the mistake of thinking gatherings are social affairs, like book clubs or a bridge nights.

"No, there isn't a lot of extra conversation going on during games," Pearn says with a chuckle. "Nor we do go out at the end of the night for coffee or drinks."

"Some people tell us they wish that was a bit more a part of things -- that we should have a pizza night once in a while or something," Kading chimes in, saying that in all the time that she's been a member, she can only recall one instance when somebody arrived with his or her partner, in tow.

"We are a bit of an eclectic group," Kearn says. "And probably one of the main reasons most of us are here is because we don't have anybody at home who has the same passion for Scrabble that we do."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 D11


Updated on Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 12:34 PM CDT: added video link

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