Scrabble: Words that count

In the end, Ron Hoekstra used the lowly two letter word ‘we’ to finish off his Scrabble opponent and win the Canadian National Scrabble championship in late November. The tournament took place in Toronto and Hoekstra’s win was a surprise. He played against the veteran wordsmith, and 1996 champ, Adam Logan of Ottawa.

In winning, Hoekstra has insured he’ll be one of eight players on the Canadian team that plays in the North American championships in 2001. Hoekstra grew up in Richmond, British Columbia. He now lives in Grand Rapids Michigan. He says he joined a Scrabble club after seeing a sign in a bookstore.

There are 175 local Scrabble tournaments around North America each year, numerous web sites for enthusiasts and school activities promoted by the game maker, Hasbro. For the upcoming championship game, there are qualifying games in Canada until the end of May. The games are sanctioned by the National Scrabble Association, which represents 10,000 players in Canada and the United States.

Scrabble rules

Scrabble sales bring in more than $40 million each year for Hasbro. Not bad for a word game that started out with the name ‘Lexico’, en became ‘Criss Cross Words’ before finding just the right word-‘Scrabble’. The name means “to grope frantically”, according to the manufacturer. And players searching desperately for a vowel tile in late stages of play can identify with the technique.

But in fact, according to official Scrabble rules, groping the tiles is not allowed. It’s called ‘brailing’. Here’s a list of insider Scrabble words used by players huddled around the word board:

  • BRAILING: feeling the surface of a tile, while selecting from the bag, to discover blanks or specific letters. Strictly forbidden in tournaments
  • BINGO: a word that uses all seven letters. A Bingo earns 50 bonus points
  • NONGO: a Bingo on your rack that won’t play on the board
  • COFFEEHOUSING: making small talk, cracking your knuckles or otherwise distracting your opponent during a game. Strictly forbidden in tournaments
  • DOUBLE-DOUBLE: a word that covers two Double Word Squares
  • BLUFFING: deliberately playing a phony word. It’s fair play and a weapon used by many experts

Designed by architect

Hasbro’s website gives a detailled history of the game. Alfred Mosher Butts, an unemployed architect, developed it during the Depression. He made the tiles by hand with balsa wood and drafting equipment. Butts researched board games and concluded they fall into three categories:

  • Number games-such as dice and bingo
  • Move games-such as chess and checkers
  • Word games-such as anagrams

Butts wanted his game to combine the word skills of anagrams and crossword puzzles-with a good dose of chance to spice it up.

Today, Scrabble is a favourite with such well known performers as Sonja Smits, the Canadian actor in the television series Traders, John Travolta and talk show host Rosie O’Donnell. The board game also stars in an upcoming film called The Wedding Planner. Jennifer Lopez plays a Scrabble expert who competes in tournaments.

Maybe she could take a lesson or two from Ron Hoekstra. One of his winning tricks-memorize obscure two and three letter words.

“They give you the most flexibility,” says the champ.