Quick, what are five Scrabble words containing a Q that can be spelled without a U?
Ask any one of the 300 participants in the National Scrabble Championship being held in the District this week and they'll fire them off in quick succession. And for good reason.
"The Q can make or break you in Scrabble," said Stan Rubinsky, assistant director of the tournament. "Every player worth his salt needs to know as many Q words as possible so he doesn't get stuck with it at the end."
Most of the tournament's wordsmiths don't stop with Q words. If there's anything that separates Scrabble whizzes from parlor players, it is their ability to memorize word and letter combinations.
Many of the championship competitors have memorized literally thousands of word combinations to be employed at a moment's notice.
"I don't even know what most of them mean," said Allan Saldanha, a 12-year-old wunderkind from London who is competing in the tournament's expert division.
Allan faces a bigger challenge than most of the entrants in the national competition in that he has had to unlearn many of the words that are acceptable to use in the United Kingdom's version of Scrabble. Players in the Washington tournament are only permitted to use words found in the U.S. version of the Scrabble Players Dictionary.
Allan lost two of his first three matches yesterday morning, but his opponents "got both of the blanks each time. There's not much I could do about that."
In Scrabble, a blank is a kind of wild card that can be used by players to represent any letter. It is especially coveted by tournament players who have 50 minutes to complete a game.
The championship tournament consists of 27 rounds held over five days. The player with the best win-loss record and best point margin over that span is declared the champion and will take the $10,000 top prize.
The tournament, which began yesterday, is being held in a large ballroom at the Ramada Renaissance Techworld in Northwest. While the games are underway, the room is hushed except for the clatter of thousands of tiles that one organizer likened to the sound of a den of rattlesnakes.
After the games, players recount the highs and lows of a match just completed, spicing their tales with talk about "phonies" and "bingos."
Phonies are bogus words players use to bluff their way through a turn. The phony words can be challenged and if found to be false a player loses a turn. If the word turns out to be a real word, then the person who made the challenge loses a turn.
A bingo occurs when players form a word using all seven letters at their disposal. A bingo is worth 50 bonus points, a nice advantage considering the average competitive match score is in the 400s.
Southeast Washington resident Robert Kilpatrick, 45, was thwarted twice in his attempt to use phony words.
"But I had to use them. I was way behind and had no chance unless I tried for a bingo," Kilpatrick said. "I'm hoping for better luck in the future."
Like many of the other competitors, Kilpatrick carries around a well-worn book containing seven-letter "bingo" word combinations to study between matches. And, of course, he knows the U-less Q words contained in the official game dictionary: faqir, qoph, qaid, qintar and qindar.
Kilpatrick said he studies the lists because the secret to Scrabble is "not always getting good tiles. It is the ability to play the tiles that you get."