"I played TONSURE," David Prinz says. "That means to shave the head in some religious ceremony or other . . . I don't really try to remember definitions . . . anyway, he didn't know the word and challenged it. I used all my letters, so it was a 70- or 80-point play. The next play, I played FLINDER . . ."
Which means what" "Don't know . . . He played VAIN, and he knew I had a P and B - they don't combine well at all. I was lucky, I had PERTURB, so I got to play that across the top for 101 points. So I went out with PERTURB. He had SALIENT in his hand, which is also ENTAILS, NAILSET, TENAILS, uh, ELASTIN, um, there might be another one, I could look it up . . . but that's quite a nice combination . . . but he never got a chance to play it."
Prinz is smiling. "I scored 550 points in that game, which was the high point of the tourament."
David Prinz, mild-mannered, 25-year-old transplanted New Yorker pension analyst, is, as of two weeks ago, the best Scrabble player in North America. He won the first International Scrabble Championship (which included Canada) on May 21 in New York. He is at his kitchen table just now, blinking behind his glasses, telling war stories. Prematurely gray curls, mustache, blue jeans, shy smile - he looks a little stricken about all the attention he's getting.
His guest is writing notes about his war stories and biting her thumb nail a lot. A dim warning is sounding somewhere in the gut of the guest, who was once a tolerable good Scrabble player and, having decided to write about Prinz, thought it might be amusing to have a go at it with him.
Prinz frowns. "You don't know this dictionary so it's a big disadvantage for you," he says kindly. The guest (who has in fact never contemplated real intimacy with a dictionary) says she will rise above this somehow.
"I'll try not to play any phonies," says Prinz.
Fake words, Prinz explain."Say the word ATTACKER. That's not in the dictionary. I would play that word. Although REATTACK is. It's just an omission. There's so many words where you take a chance on it . . . it so* unds good, so it might be good . . ."
Not that there's anything illegal about phonies. A convincing phony is great stuff. You get your opponent so rattled that he's afraid to look this weird mess up in the dictionary because he may find it, and lose his turn. Prinz says he particularly liked SPORULAE, which he sprung on a friend. "It's a very tough challenge, because SPORULE is good - " (What's that mean" "I don't know.") "-- and SPIRULAE is good. It's a very reasonable sounding word."
Did he phony his way through the tourament?
"I played a couple of four-letter phonies, nothing major. WONK. That was a good play."
The warning is growing louder.
Prinz sits down at the Scrabble board, which is a very fancy affair, a prototype plastic board the Scrabble company, Selchow Righter, decided not to market. The guests pulls an I and Prinz pulls an E, which means he goes first (closer to A). They each pull their seven letters and Prinz squints at his. He offers his guests his grandmother's choclate chip cookies.
"I am really lucky," say Prinz, and he dumps out his rtay. SEQUINS. With a Q on a double.And 50 extra for using all his letters, 102 points.
The guest has just remembered this wonderful movie on television and also that her car is probably double parked, with its lights on and all. The guest clears her throat. She thinks she may have forgotten the English language. She is going to play SAT, or UP, and Prinz will laugh so hard he will rupture something, which might cause a lawsuit.
EQUATE. Not so bad. 30 points. "Very good," says Prinz. He plays MONISH before she can reach for new letters, 14 points. She plays OWE and WE, for 19 points. He plays BLEND and DO, on many doubles, for 31 points. She plays MY and COY, for 16.
OVERLETS. Prinz smiles. He dropped this over the E of EQUATE, using all his letters, for 62 points, and is looking cute about it.
"You sure you don't want to challenge?" he says.
Panic. He said he woudn't play phonies. This is some kind of double strategy. Nobody ever heard of an overlset anyway. "I challenge," says the guest.
Prinz shakes his head, still smiling and opens the dictionary. "I know the 'over' list," he says. That's probably my strong point."
The guest would venture to lay money that most human beings of normal bent never ever heard an "over" list existed, but there it is, dozens and dozens of obscure "over" words under the definition of the word "over." The meaning of "overlets" escapes her. "It's just self explanatory," says Prinz. "It means to over allow. To overlet. If there was an open A, I could have played OVERSALT, if that would have made you feel any better," Prinz says.
The score is 209 to 65.
Prinz plays HOOEYY, for 38. My sentiments exactly, mutters the guest.
The guest plays AI and AY to block an open triple word score (11 points). Prinz drops JEER on a double, for 38. The quest plays POACHING, which uses seven letters, for 68, and helps, hecking Prinz down to a 141-point lead.
The quest asks whether Prinz studies the dictionary every night, ho ho.
Prinz looks at the quest as though he cannot figure out whether she is serious. "You have to study the dictionary," he says."Are you kidding?"
Prinz puts a D on EQUATE and makes EQUATED, DEIL, RE, LI and EL, 30 points. The guest plays SIZE, for 38, leaving open a triple word score. Prinz plays PAEAN on the triple, for 30, muttering that he has nothing but junk on his rack. The guest plays FORM, for 21. Prinz plays PE, VEX and OX.
"It's a Hebrew letter. 42."
The guest asks how Prinz keeps all these words from just overcrowding his brain and falling out. "If you just memorize words at random, it's pretty useless," Prinz says.
He gets up from the table, goes into another room, and comes out with a dog-eared spiral notebook, which he opens. The page he has turned to begins as follows:
A - entasia
B - basinet
D - detains, stained, sainted, instead
E - etesian
F - fainest
G - seating, teasing, ingesta, eatings, easting
Each letter opens up different word possibilities. Get it?The guest can feel her brain beginning to limp, but supposes she gets it. "There's no C but there will be in the new dictionary," says Prinz. (CINEAST, lover of films.)
Prinz means The Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary, which will be out this July, and the reason Prinz knows this is that he basically wrote the dictionary, pouring - Prinz doesn't describe it this way, but the people at the Scrabble company on Long Island do - over five existing dictionaries to compile the words. He also has written strategy columns for the Scrabble players' newsletter: Bluffing on the First Turn, which means deliberately putting out a fake word so the opponent will challenge it, he will have to go first, and you can build on whatever he puts out. When to throw back letters, thereby losing a turn but getting new letters, and so on.
It strikes the guest that Scrabble is a different sort of game the way players as good as Prinz approach it. There are some (like the guest's mother, who introduced her to Scrabble a long time ago) who chose words by tasting them on the tongue, like good licorice; Prinz has more of the businesslike reserve of an experienced pimp. FAINEST and TONSURE never manage to creep into his conversation. He is a college math major, and a mathematical precision commands each game. A rapid-fire internal calculator that tells Prinz at every moment what letters are out, what probability there is of a given set of letters on the opponent's tray and what of a vast array of possibilities before him will rack up the most points.
"I beat my uncle, who's a judge, when I was 11 or 12," says Prinz. He also beat his younger brother Robert so many times that Robert figures David probably owes him a little something for his service as a punching bag all those years. Their father sells fabric; their mother, an interior designer, also teaches bridge. But David doesn't play bridge, and neither he or his family can tell you exactly where this scrabble mania was born, except that the run of-the-mill little kids' scrabble games somehow fed into the knack for math and yielded up a prodigy.
The three-day championship in New York, for which Prinz won $1,500, was only his third tournament; he finished sixth of 3,000 in his first, when he was 20, and was undefeated in his second.
He is now beating the guest, politely and apparently with very little effort, by just over 200 points.
There are no letters left in the bag. Prinz plays BLENDES, for 16. The guest finds this pretty classy, inventing words right down to the end. "It's a mineral blend, a basic type of mineral," Prinz insists.
The guest plays BIT, for five. Prinz plays PER, also for five, which empties his rack and he adds up the score, 485 to 270. He suggests they play the next game with time clocks limiting each move. The guest thinks perhaps she will have a chocolate chip cookie after all. She may eat the whole box in fact.