A Mad Scrabble For a National Trophy

Charlie Williamson, left, and Lily Gasperetti, fifth-graders from Janney Elementary School in the District, ponder their options during the 2008 National School Scrabble Championship. The tournament took place this month in Providence, R.I.
Charlie Williamson, left, and Lily Gasperetti, fifth-graders from Janney Elementary School in the District, ponder their options during the 2008 National School Scrabble Championship. The tournament took place this month in Providence, R.I. (By Stew Milne -- Associated Press)
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By Adam Ross
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Three days before the 2008 National School Scrabble Championship in Rhode Island, Lily Gasperetti and Charlie Williamson, Scrabble teammates from Janney Elementary School, confer over their seven tiles and lay down the word "moron."

"Hey, that's not nice," says Lily's father, Dave Gasperetti, who's no moron but still ends up on the wrong side of an overwhelming 398-to-279 defeat to a pair of 11-year-olds. Coach Stefan Fatsis is delighted by the play, even if it unintentionally rubs salt into the dad's wounded ego.

"Moron, cool," quipped Fatsis, standing over the pair reminding them to watch their clock. A full game is 22 minutes, and every minute over incurs a 10-point penalty, something sixth-grader Lily and fifth-grader Charlie have struggled with, being newcomers to the competitive slant of the game. The clock functions the same as in chess: When it's your turn, you clock in, and when you've completed your move and tallied your score, you clock out.

"Don't take a lot of time thinking about points," Fatsis tells them, as Dave Gasperetti scans comeback possibilities. "While he's looking, you should be scoping out the board trying to figure out where you can play your two vowels," Fatsis instructs.

Fatsis, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal, became something of a Scrabble icon after writing the book "Word Freak," a first-person account of his ascent from Scrabble obscurity to Scrabble "expertise." He spent more than three years playing and learning the game from some the world's most astute Scrabble minds. Today he shares those lessons with Janney's Scrabble club, although he admits, most of the kids play for leisure and not for sport.

"They just want to play," Fatsis said of the club's roughly 20 members. "They show up, and it's mostly chaos, but when they find [a word], they're thrilled."

Competitive Scrabble isn't anything like the game played in most living rooms. The board morphs into a hodgepodge of obscure words that seemingly have no place in the English language. More than a thousand two- and three-letter words become the backbone of scoring, even though a casual player might misconstrue many of them as fake. These words, referred to as twos and threes, are to scrabble what a backswing is to a golfer, or a follow-through is to a jump shot. Without that fundamental word knowledge, a player has no shot at consistently challenging better players.

Early in his memoir, Fatsis lamented his reluctance to learn the twos and threes, which regularly cost him wins. Lily and Charlie carry index cards with hundreds scribbled on them. Although they've yet to learn them all, they exude their coach's confidence and believe they can beat anyone.

Charlie regularly whips his parents -- and isn't bashful about it.

"I'll say things like, 'Ooh, nice 14-point word,' " he said, a legal way of taunting an opponent, also known as "coffeehousing." Although coffeehousing is forbidden in the National School event, it's an intangible some adult professionals use. Lily, meanwhile, is like an old, wily elementary school veteran. She showed up to the club's first meeting with a copy of Fatsis's book and a passion to learn words from regularly sparring with her family. Together, the weekend of May 9, they became the District's first-ever team to compete in the national event. They didn't have to win anything to get there, but because of their interest -- and commitment -- Fatsis throws them against the best.

"Charlie and Lily have math brains, and they're just into it," Fatsis said.

The two ostensibly fit well together. Lily's experience and word knowledge juxtaposed with Charlie's quick board vision are keys to their joint confidence. At the tournament, these strengths were on display under the bright lights and watchful cameras of ESPN, which is tentatively set to televise the event in August. They finished with a 3-3 record, good for a ranking of 55 out of 104 teams.

Lily recalled a particular play where she anagrammed "adverted," a play in Scrabble called a "bingo" because it uses all seven letters on a player's rack in one play. Charlie was able to find a good place on the board to lay it down, she said. (Players find bingos all the time but often have no place to play them.)

"We bingoed early, which was good," Charlie said after the tournament. "We had a great partnership." They would bingo five times in six games, according to Fatsis.

The tournament featured fifth- through eighth-graders, some with word knowledge Fatsis perceived as equal to his. The winners played words like "nonmetal," "gesneria," "idehing" and "polarised."

Lily said the caliber of play she saw from peers would motivate her to study and get better. Both plan on continuing their practice sessions at the Chevy Chase Club every Tuesday, where adults silence cellphones and load up on coffee, so they can play for hours on end. Fatsis plans to challenge them with adult opponents. But perhaps, it's the adults who will find a challenge. Dave Gasperetti might think so.

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