Kids scramble through D.C. schools’ first Scrabble tournament

Ethan Rosenthal had a Q. The clock was ticking, and the high-ceilinged gym
was hushed. The round-faced, shaggy-­haired 11-year-old stared at the words arranged on the Scrabble board, then laid out six letters.

Q - I - N - T - A - R.

It didn’t matter so much what the word meant (a qintar is a discontinued Albanian coin). What mattered was that Ethan’s hours of memorizing Q words that don’t take a U had paid off — 110 points in one play.

It was a personal record — and the highest-scoring word in the D.C. Public Schools’ first district­wide Scrabble tournament, which took place Saturday at Wilson High School.

Forty-eight students from three elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools spent the day in teams of two, hunched over game boards that Hasbro donated to the school system last year. The National Scrabble Association provided game tiles, timers and other materials.

The tournament is part of the city’s effort to improve schools by forming partnerships with organizations and businesses that donate time or resources.

“We want our kids to have rich and varied experiences, and this just adds to what they are doing in the classroom,” said Shereen Williams, director of community partnerships for the D.C. schools.

Next month, the schools will hold their first districtwide chess tournament, with support from Chess Challenge, a local nonprofit group. Williams said she hoped the tournaments will become annual events.

Janney Elementary School and Deal Middle School, two of the schools represented on Saturday, have had Scrabble clubs for several years, thanks to the efforts of Stefan Fatsis. The author of “Word Freak,” about the world of competitive Scrabble, Fatsis lives in Tenleytown and has been promoting the game in local schools. There are now clubs in 25 to 30 city schools.

Scrabble has stayed relevant in the digital age, with online versions of the game proliferating. But playing it in the flesh feels different, Fatsis said.

Less is at stake when online players can easily go to Web sites for help, he said. “When there’s the pressure of an opponent staring you down, and the clock is ticking down toward zero, the feeling of, ‘I have to do this in the next minute’ — that’s something that engages every part of your mental energies.”

Scrabble was invented in the 1930s, and it grew popular after World War II in the United States and internationally. The World Scrabble Championship, held in English, is generally won by people from Anglophone countries, but not always — two champions have been from Thailand.

A few cities and states in the United States hold children’s tournaments, and some District kids have attended the National School Scrabble Championship.

The game is not just about spelling and vocabulary; it is also a study of probabilities, geometry and spatial relations, said Fatsis, adding that advanced players keep track of which letters have been used in order to deduce which ones opponents are most likely to have.

“For kids,” he added, “it’s also fun to learn that ‘cwm’ is a word.” (It’s a geological term.)

At Ballou Senior High School, which had one student in Saturday’s tournament, the game has become so popular that the club had to be divided into two groups.

“You hear them arguing over ‘That’s a word,’ ‘That’s not a word,’ ” said Melissa Jackson, a Ballou librarian. “They go over to the bookshelves and pull the books down” to check.

Some kids in the tournament had played in adult tournaments; for others, it was the first time playing someone face-to-face.

Christian Tarver, 17, a junior at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights, had played Scrabble only on the computer until this week. Now he was up against kids half his age who had been playing since age 3.

“They’re like, ‘What grade are you in?’ ” he said, rolling his eyes and smiling. “I’m like, ‘You don’t want to ask.’ ”

As kids argued over whether “yeti” was a proper name, a few parents stood near the pizza and cookies.

Ethan’s father, Dan Rosenthal, said Scrabble gave his son something competitive to do. “He doesn’t play a lot of sports,” he said. “But the way Stefan [Fatsis] treats it, it’s like a sport, and a lot of the sporty boys get into it.”

As referees strolled around to make sure rules were being followed and scores properly tallied, there were only the sounds of murmuring between teammates and tiles clacking on boards.

“Dude, is ‘gul’ a word?” Nicholas Spasojevic, 9, a fourth-grader at Janney, asked his teammate, Felix Garland, 10.

“Dude, it’s not a word,” Felix replied.

But they took the chance anyway, and when their opponents challenged them, all four raced across the gym to a computer to check. It turned out the word was acceptable, though none of them could say what it meant.

“Meanings are meaningless in Scrabble, and this is a very difficult thing for people to accept,” Fatsis said, although he said children seem to embrace the concept more easily.

“Adults get hung up on, ‘What does this mean, I’ve never heard it.’ The wonderful thing about kids is they are much more open-minded and much more curious, so they will fully accept that ‘zoea’ is a word.”

(For those hung up on meaning, “zoea” refers to a larval form of certain crustaceans.)

Knowing words like flimflam can impress your friends, said Eliana Rosenthal, 10, a fourth-grader at Janney. “I admit, it’s kind of fun to show it off.”

As in chess, top-ranked Scrabble players tend to be male, but on Saturday Fatsis’s daughter Chloe, 9, and her teammate, Zara Hall, 10, fourth-graders at Janney, won the tournament, racking up 338 points in the last game to their opponents’ 289.

“We played ‘veritas,’ and we also played ‘zany,’ which was 66 points,” said Zara, beaming.

So what was next for the winners? Would they go into retirement?

Yes, Zara said. “Until next year.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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