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July 07, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Under the spell Under the spell (July 07, 2004)

SCRABBLE enthusiasts let 'er rip at Palo Alto restaurant

by Jocelyn Dong

There's something vaguely un-Palo Alto about the Palo Alto SCRABBLE Club.

Perhaps it's the fact that they meet in a chain restaurant, Boston Market on El Camino Real, where the greatest hits from the '70s and '80s ooze from overhead speakers as players flip and configure their tiles.

Maybe it's Mitch Bayersdorfer, co-director of the group, who greets newcomers sporting a blue pinstripe shirt, an earnest look and a nametag made of SCRABBLE tiles.

Or maybe it's the fact that a lot of the people who participate don't actually live in Palo Alto, coming from as far as Marin and Los Gatos to ply their orthographical skills.

Whatever the reasons, in a "my car is bigger than your car/my company's hotter than yours" kind of town, a bunch of people getting together to play a half-century-old parlor game seems almost, well, quaint.

Members of the club, however, might beg to differ. And they'd probably use really obscure words to do so.

Bayersdorfer's group, which he co-founded with John C. Green Jr. in April, draws upward of two dozen enthusiasts of the Hasbro game each Monday night and has an e-mail list of about 90 people.

It boasts as members the 2004 National School SCRABBLE Champions -- Terman Middle School students Eric Johnston and Thomas Bao. And later this month, at least five of the adults will fly to New Orleans for the ultimate war of words, the National SCRABBLE Championship.

"The Bay Area is a hotbed of SCRABBLE," proclaimed Bayersdorfer, who keeps in shape by playing the game online a few hours each week. The region has more clubs -- six -- and tournaments than anywhere else in the country, he said. Bayersdorfer's knowledge of all things SCRABBLE is nothing short of prodigious.

SCRABBLE has been enjoying a renaissance with the publication of "Word Freak," a 2002 book about SCRABBLE competitors by Wall Street Journal reporter Stefan Fatsis, and the recent release of the documentary, "Word Wars." The film will show in Palo Alto from July 16-22 at Gunn High School's Spangenberg Theater.

On a recent Monday evening, Eleanor Traeg and Betty Alexandra Toole settled in for a game, as curious diners passed by their table. Both have played in tournaments for at least a decade. Traeg brought a special scoring sheet that helps her keep track not only of the points but also which tiles have been played. Toole brought her Franklin electronic SCRABBLE dictionary.

Between them sat a rotating board, a velvet bag of tiles, and a timer. Just as in competitive chess, competitive SCRABBLE puts a time limit on play -- 50 minutes total.

Traeg considered her first rack of seven tiles.

"ZOEAE," she plunked down for her first play. Forty-eight points.

Toole fingered her tiles, then grabbed all seven and responded with "NUNNERY." Sixty-three points.

The salvos had been launched.

At another table, 10-year-old Billy Nakamura of Sunnyvale was matching wits with Ritchard Shadian of San Mateo. When a visitor pointed quizzically to the word "OORIE" (which apparently means "shivering with cold"), Nakamura convulsed in a giggle.

"It's a vowel dump," he said, referring to a word that allows a player to get rid of an excess of vowels.

More than merely a gaggle of SCRABBLE lovers, the club is a community, said Bayersdorfer. SCRABBLE players are "literate, smart people ... who love learning and knowledge."

Everyone from lawyers to computer programmers to a man who drives cars for a rental agency turn up each week. Some players have known each other informally for years. One even got another member a job at Sun Microsystems.

On Monday night, one woman chatted amiably with another player about her work and life.

This is the image of a SCRABBLE club that Bayersdorfer would like the public to see, not the world portrayed in "Word Wars," which followed four competitive SCRABBLE players through various tournaments.

The movie, he said, "only focused on eccentrics. It gave the impression we're all eccentrics. ... It's not flattering."

In the movie, the players practice four to five hours a day, and each man's quirks are mercilessly caught by the camera, from hiring prostitutes before a match to imbibing bottles of Maalox.

"For most of us at the mid-level, this is a hobby for us," said Bayersdorfer, who is married and has a daughter. "We have jobs."

Half of the club's members play at the "social" level, while half play competitively, Bayersdorfer said. Those who take the game more seriously love the strategy and compare it to chess.

Bayersdorfer, for example, tossed out the concept of "rack balance," which he called a key aspect of the game.

"It's what you play and what's left on the rack. You're trying to think a move or two ahead," he said.

Traeg and Toole discussed defensive moves, such as taking prime real estate before one's opponent can, and blocking potential moves that would score the other player big points.

Shadian called the game "50 percent skill and 50 percent luck," which is part of why he likes it. In chess, the better player always wins. In SCRABBLE, luck of the draw constantly changes the game, he said.

Basic preparation also plays a role in success. Bayersdorfer hands out lists of all the legal two- and three-letter words, which players memorize. Nakamura admitted to studying the dictionary all night long once. But, he admitted impishly, he doesn't know the definitions of many of the words he plays.

Toole, who heads the Marin SCRABBLE Club, sees a meaning to the game that's deeper than having fun with an invigorating pastime.

"What I love about this game is it's a game of life. You (accidentally) set someone up for a big play, and you go, 'Oh gosh,'" she said, her voice dropping in mock disappointment. "Then you complain. It's such a metaphor."

A few turns later, Toole's opponent, Traeg, plunked down a final word, sealing the win. A smile played across Traeg's face.

Ah, so maybe they're not so un-Palo Alto after all. For those wondering, "zoeae" are crab larvae. Senior staff writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at [email protected]

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