By Matthew E. Milliken
March 15, 2016
Last weekend, for the second year in a row, I volunteered at the North Carolina school Scrabble championship, a tournament held in a Chapel Hill elementary school that’s organized by my pal, D—. Since I failed to sustain any injuries this time around, I’ll write about the event itself, at least generally.
The school version of tournament Scrabble differs from the adult version in a few ways. The most significant difference by far is that adults play one on one, while youngsters play in teams of two.
Another difference worth pointing out is that school Scrabble involves students in grades four through eight. As you might expect, there’s a tremendous variety in the sizes, emotional maturity, word knowledge, tactical ability and even interest level of the players. Generally, the older teams tend to be more successful; of the two dozen teams in this year’s tournament, the five duos of eighth graders finished in the top 11 slots, as did a team composed of an eighth grader and a sixth grader. Eight of the bottom nine spots were taken up by teams of fourth and fifth graders.
There are exceptions to the rules, of course: While the championship was claimed by a pair of eighth graders, who will represent North Carolina next month in the North American School Scrabble Championship tournament, the runner-ups were a pair of fifth graders. Third place was claimed by a sixth grader and a fifth grader, one of whom I’d played and beaten in a tournament over the past year. Fourth place went to a pair of sixth graders, one of whom I’d also played and beaten in tournament competition before.
The winning team had a 5-0 record and a tournament-high spread of 667, which sort of means that they collectively scored that many points more than their opponents. (I say “sort of” because, in an effort to reduce the impact of disparate skill levels, the spread is artificially capped in early games.) The teams that placed second through fourth tied with 4-1 records and were ranked by their spreads, which ranged from 667 to 213.
Incidentally, every team in this year’s competition won at least one game, which was nice for all involved. And as D— pointed out, no competitor burst into tears during the event, so that was a good thing. (Someone cries roughly once every two years, D— told me.)
My role as a volunteer tournament official was to walk around the elementary school cafeteria and offer guidance or rulings whenever an issue cropped up. About two out of every three times, I called over D— for backup. A lot of the time, the issue involved whether a team was still able to challenge an opponent’s play (if a hold or challenge was declared before new tiles had been drawn from the bag, yes; otherwise, no) or what to do if a team had drawn too many tiles or if some stray tiles were found.
Occasionally there were questions about scoring. These were usually simple to handle — just stop the clock, compare sheets and get everything squared away.
In fact, a scoring discrepancy was one of the first issues I had to address at this year’s tournament, although this turned out to be not so simple. A boy on one team was in charge of keeping score, but he’d flat out failed to write down at least two or three plays running. His teammate, members of the other team and I all kept on prompting him on what to write down, but he was mostly unresponsive, to the point where I worried that he might be suffering from a serious mental or physical illness. After a couple of minutes, I just gave up and told the teams to resume their game.
I crossed paths with D— shortly afterward and told him that a particular player seemed to be completely disengaged. D— said that the player’s coach had warned him that the kid just happened to be like that.
One thing that’s interesting about wandering around a Scrabble tournament is you get to see a bunch of boards and a bunch of racks. I like appreciating an excellent play. One of the older teams put down the bingo SENARII, the plural of senarius, a poetic term referring to a Greek or Latin verse of six metric feet. Impressive!
I got a bit sad at one point because a younger team had an opportunity to play QUA, QAT or QIS over a triple-word-score spot for at least 36 points; unfortunately, the players didn’t see this during the game.
At another point, I saw a team with a rack containing a bingo. (I forget the exact details, but they had either an S or a blank or both.) There wasn’t an obvious spot to hook an S onto the end of a word, but there was an opportunity to use a D to make a bingo. A few minutes later, I noticed that the duo had managed to use all of the letters on their rack in a play tied to that D. I wanted to congratulate them, but it wasn’t appropriate to say anything during the contest. Alas, I was tied up when their game ended, so I never got to praise their savvy play.
Another fun thing about volunteering at the Scrabble tournament is that there’s free pizza for all the players and officials. I wandered around the school grounds during the lunch break and placed a phone call or two.
I watched one older player repeatedly toss a Clementine orange onto a canvas tent top stretched over an outdoor eating area, catch it in a small cup and then toss it back up onto the canvas, all using just his left hand. He did this something like 10 times in a row. Then, as soon as I broke out my smartphone to capture a video of this, he fumbled the Clementine.
Also, I noticed that this school has some animals, which is something I hadn’t known before.
At the end of the tournament, sometime before 4 p.m., I went back to my car and drove to Carrboro’s charming Looking Glass Cafe and sat outside. I was a bit tired — I’d done a lot of walking, although not as much as the previous weekend. Still, it was an enjoyable way to spend the day!