It took me all of 40 seconds to be charmed by Phillip Gasperetti. I took off my coat, and he poured me hot coffee on an icy evening. What would you like in it? One sugar or two? He plays Vivaldi on the violin and baseball on the diamond. He reads widely: World War II history, Charles Dickens, Lemony Snicket. One of his oil paintings, a pastel-colored tree, hangs in the dining room. And he plays Scrabble, awfully good Scrabble, once scoring 410 against the CD-ROM genius player known as Maven.
Phillip Gasperetti is 10 years old and in the fifth grade.
Scrabble is why I've paid Phillip a visit. He's one of the top-rated players at St. Ann's Academy, the small Catholic school in Northwest that will represent the District in the first National School Scrabble Championship in Boston this spring. And he's training like a prizefighter.
"You have to be poker-faced," he says, explaining his strategy. Honest, this kid is 10. "You can't let your emotions show." Meaning you can't get too excited when you see a 108-point, triple-word-score opportunity spelling ZINGS and DEFEATS in one play. That's called "hooking."
But why Scrabble? The game's been around since Harry Truman was president. My parents spent many long weekend nights in the 1960s spelling unusual words on a board when they had little money for other entertainment or no babysitter for the kids. Is Scrabble in the midst of some kind of renaissance?
"Well," says Phillip, pausing to ruminate, "it's a very educational game, as you can see, because it uses words. And also, I think it boosts discipline."
I want to clone Phillip Gasperetti, or at least help protect him from the pop-culture madness that is draining the intellectual curiosity out of so many young people. I'm talking about cynical, adult-produced madness: mindless, foul-mouthed movies and mindless, foul-mouthed music. Reality TV and reality video games. Raunchy radio. And enough Internet junk to fill the Grand Canyon.
My latest pop-culture rant is aimed at the overhyped "American Idol," which isn't really about hope or talent or launching musical careers, but about cruelty and humiliation. Who will flop on national television? Who will Simon diss this week? Will any contestant break down and cry? Which one will exit with expletives for the judges?
It may be entertainment, but it's not Scrabble.
Scrabble "stimulates the brain," says Joe Edley, director of clubs and tournaments for the National Scrabble Association, an organization of 10,000 competitive players. "It's addictive, but in a positive way." Addictive enough to be creating junkies from Mel Gibson to Coolio. Some say the Scrabble surge is a 9/11 byproduct, the result of a return to family game nights. Others say a rebirth was ignited by Stefan Fatsis's 2001 bestseller, Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players.
But it's one thing for adult tournament players to get geeked up spelling QIVIUT (the woolly hair of a musk ox) or for old-schoolers to reconnect with a game out of nostalgia. It's another thing -- an inspiring thing -- to watch kids claim the game as their own, enhancing their analytical abilities, honing decision-making skills, funning and learning simultaneously. Scrabble is now played by more than a million kids in 20,000 schools nationwide, according to the National Scrabble Association.
At St. Ann's, a school of some 240 students (pre-K through eighth grade) that's been around for more than 120 years, a whole Scrabble subculture has taken root. Last spring Phillip's mom, Wanda Fleming, who grew up in Washington playing Scrabble, inquired about starting a club at St. Ann's. The principal agreed, and notes went out to parents. In 24 hours, 16 kids had signed up for this school year -- more than expected. The club started meeting in the fall on Wednesdays after school. The PTA contributed money. The school joined the National Scrabble Association. And when it was time to enter the first national school championship tournament, St. Ann's was the only District school to apply and hold a qualifying tourney.
Fleming and her husband, David Gasperetti, have been tireless coaches. They bought the Scrabble boards. They taught the kids about "rack management" (try never to have more than one of the same letter, except E). They drilled them in playing two-letter words (DE) and U-less Q words (QWERTY). They always bring food. Once, they even brought a movie to practice, "The Wedding Planner," in which Jennifer Lopez plays Scrabble. The point: "Other people play Scrabble, not just rocket scientists and nerds," says Fleming.
And now, she adds, "it's sort of a coveted thing to be in the Scrabble club, because there's a waiting list."
At St. Ann's, to play Scrabble is to be cool.
Take that, "American Idol."
Kevin Merida's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.