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Bob Levey
Bob Levey
(Barbara Tyroler)
Levey Live Archive
Column: Bob Levey
Metro Section
Talk: Metro message boards
Live Online Transcripts

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Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, March 11, 2003; Noon ET

"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon ET. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Today, Bob's guest is John D. Williams, Jr., Executive Director of the National Scrabble Association.

John D. Williams, Jr.
John D. Williams, Jr.

Media and manufacturers of the game have deemed John D. Williams, Jr. “Mister Scrabble.” Williams has been head of the 10,000 member National Scrabble Association since 1987. Williams is a tournament player and co-author of “Everything Scrabble.”

He is also co-creator of the Scrabble calendar from Workman Publishing and the syndicated Scrabblegrams column in newspapers all over the U.S. and Canada.

During his tenure, Williams helped organize the first World Scrabble Championship, doubled the Scrabble tournament scene in North America and began the National School Scrabble Program, now used as a learning tool in nearly 20,000 schools across the country. He is a frequent lecturer on words and language. Having worked for MTV Networks, Nickelodeon, TV Land, Paramount and others, Williams also works as a writer/producer for television and film.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bob Levey: Good afternoon, Mr. Williams, and welcome to "Levey Live" (a nine-letter word meaning "consistently excellent!"). Let's begin with a look at the popularity of Scrabble. Still where it was back in the calmer, quieter 1950s and 1960s? Or suffering because the Internet world offers so many time-consuming choices?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Happily, the game is selling better than ever -- over 2 million sets a year. It started with a craze in the early 50's then waned for a while. But stronger than ever now despite today's myriad time-consuming alternatives.

Arlington, Va.: Just wanted to say I've recently rediscovered Scrabble after receiving it as a gift. I'm proud to say I'm undefeated, though my husband may be regretting the present! One thing I have trouble with is coming up with the 8-letter 50pt bonus words - I've gotten a couple, but more often than not am not lucky enough to have 7 usable letters, or a spot long enough to play them. Is there a Web site or book you could recommend with word lists, so that I might have more of these big point words in my back pocket?

John D. Williams, Jr.: At the risk of being self-serving, I'll recommend the book EVERYTHING SCRABBLE, which I co-authored with 3x National SCRABBLE Champion Joe Edley. (Pocket Books) It takes you step-by-step from being a "living room" player to expert who can make 7 and 8-letter plays rountinely!

Bob Levey: Can you imagine a day when there'd be a pro Scrabble tour similar to the pro golf tour? Scrabble would obviously be a huge yawn on television. But is there a market for Scrabble as a spectator sport nevertheless?

John D. Williams, Jr.: The actually is sort of a tour. There are 200 tournaments every year, plus a national and world championship. First prize is $25,000. Actually, we hope to have a big-time SCRABBLE match on television sooner rather than later. Actually in test broadcasts it can be pretty interesting television with the right play-by-play and color commentators. There's definitely plenty of junk on television that's more boring.

Bowie, Md.: My Official Scrabble Dictionary does not include the words "fax" or "ex." Does your association recognize that language is constantly growing?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Your dictionary is out of date. Check out the Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary 3rd Edition (Merriam-Webster)
We update the dictionary every few years to include new words that have worked their way into the language. Keep an eye out for "za" -- slang for pizza. It'll be in there next time.

Somewhere, USA: North Shore: Hi Bob and Mr. Williams,

It's funny we're having this chat, because I was in a department store with my mom over the weekend and she pointed at some fishing creels and told me "creel" was a great Scrabble word, because "not many people know it's a word, you know" (she's gettin' up there). And now I'd like to know how I can get involved in, shall we say, competitive Scrabble? I'm a writer and I like to think I have a propensity for these types of games. Thanks!

John D. Williams, Jr.: First, creel is indeed goog. Strategically it's great to know because if REEL in on the board you can put the C as what we call a "front hook."

To learn more about the competitive SCRABBLE scene go to the National SCRABBLE Association Web site at www.scrabbleassociation.com

Bob Levey: I'm told that many top players will exchange their letters, and lose a turn, because they think it'll help them in the long run. Do you recommend this strategy? It seems a little like sinking a layup in the other team's basket to me.....

John D. Williams, Jr.: Sometimes exchanging some or all of your tiles is definitely the best move. If your rack is VVIIWUU, it's going to be a lousy rack for at least a few more turns. Get rid of that junk. You might draw the blank, S or Z!

Medford, Mass.: Hello Mr. Williams, it's great to have you here. I recently finished reading "Word Freak" by Stephen Fatsis, a book I'm sure you're familiar with. What has the reaction in the Scrabble world been to the book? It somewhat painted its serious members as social rejects, but also as sympathetic characters. Your thoughts?


John D. Williams, Jr.: The book is very accurate although some people feel they were portrayed a little harshly. It has been optioned by Hollywood director Curtis Hanson (EIGHT MILE, WONDER BOYS, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) who spent a couple of days at our last national championship.

Washington, D.C.: Are the bonus points and tile values appropriately matched to the language? Everyone knows that X should have more points than the letter R, but does it have more points proportionately to its rarity of use? Likewise with the bonus squares on the board, would revising their values or adding more board space significantly change the dynamics of the game?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Alfred Butts, the inventor of the game, spent hundreds of hours analyzing and testing letter frequency patterns in the English language. Same with the bonus square.

It's kind of like baseball. He got it right the first time.
Image if bases were 80 feet apart or the pitcher's mound was 75 feet away!

Takoma Park, Md.: Hello from NSA Member 23161! Next January will mark my 20th year of tournament play! The first tournament I went to was in Atlantic City; it was run by Paul Avrin and Ron Tiekert. I'd never played in a club before, or using a clock or egg-timer, or even saw a 2-letter word list (Ron sent me one he'd handwritten!). I challenged OD, which was good, and played ZIT, which was not good at that time. I think I won 3 of the 10 games, but I did win a prize for having the lowest winning score; I think it was 244!

John D. Williams, Jr.: You are a member of an elite group who has played tournament SCRABBLE for 20 years. Congratulations!

Mt. Rainier, Md.: Is Scrabble popular only among the English-speaking? I don't hear of the French or Germans playing it. I think it would be so cool to have Scrabble in Hebrew or Arabic or Russian!

John D. Williams, Jr.: It overwhelmingly the most popular in English. But editions are made in Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and many other languages. In North America, however, it's pretty much available only in English, Spanish and French.

Chevy Chase, Md.: Quick, what's the highest point word you can come up with using the following letters?


John D. Williams, Jr.: Of course it would depend of what's on the board.
Basically the best word I can find in this group is JO,
although the word JIZ is good in England.

Germantown, Md.: Oh, man, this brings up a lot of memories. My mother and I used to play Scrabble frequently when I was a child. To compensate for my age, she allowed me to look up any word in the dictionary before I played it and to take as long as I needed on turns. These days, I can't find anyone to play with. I'd love to play again - how can I find other Scrabble players?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Go to the NSA Web site at www.scrabbleassociation.com

There are a couple of SCRABBLE clubs in the Philadelphia area.

Washington, D.C.: can you tell us about the school program? I just started playing with my two kids and they are hooked.

John D. Williams, Jr.: The National School SCRABBLE Program is now in 20,000 schools throughout the U.S. with over a million kids participating. It's a fun, effective way to teach math, vocabulary, dictionary use, spatial relationships, teamwork and more. The first ever National School SCRABBLE Championship will in in Boston on April 26th. 200 students from 23 staters will compete of a $5,000 first prize. They are grades 5-8. To learn more go to our Web site www.scrabbleassociation.com -- click in school section

Bowie, Md.: What's the highest-scoring word you have reliable information was actually played in a game, without being deliberately set-up or colluded among the players?

John D. Williams, Jr.: BRAZIERS (one who works in brass) for 311 points

Bob Levey: Most "friendly" games but much less so when someone wants to use a piece of slang and the other player won't go for it. How do you decide whether "um," "duh" and "ugh" are in or out?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Before you start agree on what the dictionary is going to be used to settle disputes. The Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary is best because it has all the 2-8 letters words from the 4 most popular dictionaries.

a lot of slang words are acceptable.

Bob Levey: Let's say a really, really good human Scrabble player sat down to play against a computer that had been packed with thousands of legitimate words. Would the computer always win?

John D. Williams, Jr.: In a man-versus-machine match a few years ago the A.I. beat a team comprised of the World Champ and runner-up.

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Williams,
I was introduced to the game by my boyfriend, an avid player. We don't play much, as the scores are VERY lopsided. What do you suggest I can do to learn a bit more and get better at playing the game?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Read EVERYTHING SCRABBLE, find someone else to play with,too, until you get better.

Bob Levey: Your position on obscene words is that, if they're in the dictionary, they can be used in Scrabble. Has your association ever come under pressure to change that policy?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Yes. Several years ago it was mandated by the manufacturer that 100+ allegedly obscene and objectionable words be removed from the Scrabble dictionary sold in stores. However, the NSA still uses all words.

Kingstowne, Va.: My wife and I used to love playing Scrabble. We'd have dinner parties with our Scrabble-playing friends and play well into the night. But lately, work has left us so enervated that playing a "thinking" game that reminds us of college math and English quizzes has lost some of its appeal. Do you see the popularity of Scrabble waning in this era of video games and other mindless entertainment? Thanks.

John D. Williams, Jr.:
As I mentioned earlier, SCRABBLE is actually now more popular than ever! 2+ million sets sold very year.

Washington, D.C.: Please settle a debate: Can the same word be used more than once in one game?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Yes.

Arlington, Va.: I read Stefan Fatsis' book "Word Freak" with great interest. He describes a Scrabble subculture that seems highly idiosyncratic and all-consuming, at least for those who are part of it.

What is the Scrabble community's general opinion of the book?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Most agree it's pretty accurate.

Alexandria, Va.: Are there any other "Q without U" words that are not listed in the instruction booklet? This has created near-riot situations at our house! Thanks.

John D. Williams, Jr.: There are about 22 which include plurals.
These are on the "secret word list" one gets when he or she joins the NSA. The list is also in EVERYTHING SCRABBLE (Pocket Books)

Bob Levey: You caused quite a stir a few years ago when you decreed that racial slurs like "dago" and "Jew" (used as a verb) would be permitted in Scrabble tournaments. Do you still feel that was the right decision?

John D. Williams, Jr.: They were always allowed. Basically if a word is in the dictionary -- no mater how repulsive its meaning -- the rules say it's good.

Bob Levey: Will we ever see proper names allowed in Scrabble?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Plenty of proper names are allowed already:

plus celebrity names: JAY LENO, HOLLY HUNTER, ED WOOD

Bob Levey: Do you recommend playing Scrabble with a time limit, if you're only a semi-serious player?

John D. Williams, Jr.: It's always good to play with a time limit. The games are shorter and more fun. Plus one usually finds the best play in the first 2/3 minutes anyway.

Bob Levey: How many words would I need to memorize to be able to beat John Williams Jr. (or any other world-ranked player) at Scrabble?

John D. Williams, Jr.:

At least 10,000 you currently don't know.

Bob Levey: Blocking access to the triple-word scores is a basic part of Scrabble strategy. Is there a super-duper insider way of accomplishing this? And what about this fact: When you block access to a "triple," you block it not just for your opponent, but for yourself, too.

John D. Williams, Jr.: As a rule people play far too defensively. Concentrate on how much you can score instead of worrying about what your opponent might do.Don't worry about defense until at least halfway into the game.

Washington, D.C.: Yahoo.com has a scrabble take off called Literati. Have you looked at that? It is very close to scrabble. Does scrabble have any presence online so you can player other people over the internet?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Sorry. For legal reason I cannot comment on SCRABBLE on the internet.

Bob Levey: I understand that the highest score ever recorded by one player in one game is 770. Wow! Do you know some of the words this person used to run up this mammoth score?

John D. Williams, Jr.: It was played by Mark Landsberg out of L.A. His words included: SHAMEFUL, WOBBLIER,INTRADAY,UNCINATE and GRIDIRON

Silver Spring, Md.: I'm surprised and delighted to hear that Scrabble is growing in popularity. I was raised with it and have trouble finding people my age (late 30s) who enjoy playing it. I -will- say that I've found games all over the world--and once played in French in a very remote village in Mali.

my question: I once saw a backpack version of the game---the tiles were magnetic and stuck, like colorforms, to a plastic holder about 3 x 5. The board was also plastic and folded into about 3x6 and was nearly flat. Any idea where I can get this? I've looked everywhere!


John D. Williams, Jr.: The game you described has not been made of about 20 years. Hasbro has a great "portfolio" edition that should fill the void.

Riverdale, Md.: Common complaint among recreational players:

"The Board is Closed"

Opening the board frequently sets up the opponents to score more than the player who opens it, but closing it makes the game overall less fun because there are fewer places to build.

Is this just an attitude problem among less-sophisticated players, or do high-level players like seeing open boards, too? If so, do they find opening it early sets up better plays by the opponents, or is it worth doing anyway?

John D. Williams, Jr.: The conventional strategy is to keep it open until you get a lead, then try to shut it down on your opponent. But sometimes you are forced to open it up if you're behind and need a 7-letter play to catch up.

Washington, D.C.: Are there any Scrabble clubs or tournaments in the Washington area?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Several. Go to our Web site www.scrabbleassociation.com and look at the roster.

Bob Levey: Most of the top Scrabble players in the world are male. Why?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Some says it's because at the highest level the game is about math/analysis/probability more than words and men traditionally test better on that.

Others say it's because no woman in her right mind could or would spend 4 hours a days studying word lists and playing simulated games -- which is what one needs to do to get to the top.

Bob Levey: My favorite Scrabble word is QI. How many times have you played it in a game?

John D. Williams, Jr.: QI is not good in North American SCRABBLE play, only the rest of the world.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Customarily, when a player has too many tiles an opponent selects, sight unseen, the appropriate number for return to the deck. But there is no Scrabble rule I am aware of that proscribes this procedure. Or IS there? Or, if not, what do the tournament players do (other than never make this mistake, I mean)?


John D. Williams, Jr.: Tournament players randomly take three from the rack, take the most valuable one and put it back in the bag.

Somewhere, USA: re: proper names: Proper names are allowed?! Since when? Did I fall asleep and the rules changed completely?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Proper names only if they are also generic words:

NICK, TEXAS, RICHARD are examples

Somewhere, USA: Nani: Mother gave us kids a Scrabble set for Christmas in, oh 1953, and I still have that old set. My granddaughters and I play now. Scrabble is one of their favorite rainy day pastimes at my house.

John D. Williams, Jr.: We love to hear about families and different generations playing together. THanks!

Chantilly, Va.: I'm a non-player and have no idea what "The Board is Closed" means. Would you care to clue me in?

John D. Williams, Jr.: It means there are very few places to make a play because of either the words or position of the plays.

Bob Levey: As a professional writer, I'm amused (and a little astonished) to learn that most Scrabble professionals don't know the definitions of the words they routinely use when they play the game. Shouldn't the Scrabble establishment adopt the rule we all first learned in the seventh grade--"use it in a sentence or don't use it?"

John D. Williams, Jr.: No.

Bob Levey: Serious Scrabble players like to do "tile tracking" (a fancy way of saying, "They like to know which tiles remain to be chosen and played"). Is this a hard skill to learn?

John D. Williams, Jr.: No. Just write down the 100 letters beforehand on a piece of paper and check them off as they're played. It's legal.

Bob Levey: Do people bet on Scrabble?

John D. Williams, Jr.: You bet.

Bob Levey: Spiritual question for you: Why does the Good Lord always make sure that we lose one tile from every Scrabble set?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Actually you can get replacement tiles from the manufacturer. I think it's up to 10 for free. Call 1-800-525-6411 and get customer service.

Bob Levey: Many players fear the Q, because they fear getting caught with it, forlornly unplayed, at the end of the game. Does John Williams fear the Q?

John D. Williams, Jr.: You should usually try to get rid of the Q as soon as possible.

Bob Levey: When you run into a word you don't know, do you automatically start breaking it down into possible Scrabble words? For example, my last name--the only words I see inside it are "eel," "vee," "levy" and "vey" (as in "oy vey"). Do you see others? Did you start "attacking" Levey as soon as you saw that unusually-spelled word?

John D. Williams, Jr.: vey is no good. I see EL, YE, LEE, EYE, LEV

Bob Levey: In the world of big-time Scrabble, using all your letters in one turn is known as a Bingo. How many Bingos does a good player average in any one game? How many Bingos can a good player suffer from his opponent and still win that game?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Experts get 2/3 bingos a game. I've seen plenty of people get 2/3 bingos and still loose, however!

Bob Levey: In baseball, a team that's winning in the sixth inning wins the game about 85 percent of the time. Same in Scrabble? In other words, is it a good idea to get as far in front as you can, as soon as you can?

John D. Williams, Jr.: Scrabble is about 25% luck. It's always good to get ahead han try to keep your opponent from scoring big.

Bob Levey: Many thanks and happy tile-fishing to our guest, John Williams Jr. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our guest on "Levey Live" will be Jared Fogle, the "poster child" for the Subway sandwich chain. Jared is famous for his TV commercials, in which he claims to have lost 200 pounds by eating Subway food. Our visit with him will begin at noon Eastern time on March 18.

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