Tl;dr: to me, the love of the tournament Scrabble community inspired me
to dedicate my life to mastering the game.
I've condensed my Scrabble story into what Medium would probably say is a ten minute read. You do you.
Wait...Competitive Scrabble? That's a Thing?
In September of 2004, I followed my dad into a game store in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, CA. I had eagerly anticipated this day for a long time. Then fourteen, I'd been playing Scrabble online a few hours a day for the preceding eighteen months. Through those endless hours on the Internet Scrabble Club (ISC), I became aware of the competitive Scrabble scene. Excited to learn about the community, I read the book Word Freak, but Stefan Fatsis' colorful novel actually left me scared to play in a tournament. I was afraid I wasn't good enough, and all of the rules seemed intimidating to my young teenage self.
Like most nerdy kids that age, I was bullied at school and had trouble making friends. Playing Scrabble online was my escape from high school, and as I began to make virtual friends with a number of other "kid Scrabblers" around North America, I only became more attached to my hobby. It took a solid year to work up the courage to attend a local tournament - and even then I wasn't sure if I was ready. But my new friends seemed convinced I was.
In fact my nerves were so strong on that Sunday that I actually hid behind my dad, and made him register me for the tournament. I even knew a couple of the players from ISC, but there was no way I was coming out of hiding until the first game began. Although I didn't win that tournament, I left the game store with an invitation to attend the Oakland Scrabble Club the next week, and an intriguing sense of feeling as though maybe, just maybe, I might belong with these people.
Not even two months later I traveled to my first tournament in Las Vegas, NV. I got 2nd place in my division, won $825, and got to meet some of my virtual friends in person. I played in every local event over the next six months, not only because I loved playing the game, but because the adult players would invite me out to dinner afterwards, and genuinely seemed to like me. By the following January, I had a new best friend, some 20 years older than me, who actually thought I was really cool. (A decade later, I was the best man at his wedding.) I traveled to more tournaments around the west coast, and played in my first National Championship the following July It was one of the best weeks of my life up to that point - being able to put faces to so many online identities, and attain my first expert rating was life-changing.
This is it, I realized. I have found my people.
the Escapism continues
When I moved to the Scrabble-wasteland that is San Diego to begin undergrad in 2007, I thought I might be moving on from the game. And yet, my immaturity got me in trouble at school, and I soon found myself lonely and isolated yet again. And of course, rather than try to fix my social standing at school, I turned back to the community I'd grown to love so dearly. I had saved up a good chunk of money from both Scrabble and my high school busboy job, so I started spending my savings to fly around the country every month to play in tournaments. And fortunately, I was able to win enough prize money that the hobby was paying for itself. So while everything else seemed to be going to hell, I knew I had Scrabble and its people.
As fate would have it, as my social isolation at UCSD worsened, I fell in love for the first time in 2009, with, you guessed it, another Scrabble player. Over the next 5.5 years, that relationship defined both my Scrabble journey and my life (filled with tremendous highs and lows). We inspired each other and worked together to become two of the best players in the world, and I don't know if I would have ever reached the level I did in Scrabble had we not crossed paths. Sadly, the relationship ended quite awfully, but I'd be dishonest to leave that chapter out of my Scrabble journey.
So college happened. I eventually got my act together and really enjoyed my final year in San Diego, and got a degree in cognitive psychology. Honestly, though, the majority of my fondest college-aged memories are from Scrabble tournaments. And as a fitting conclusion to that chapter, I drove home to the Bay Area having no idea what to do with my life. But I had a bit of money, and I had the Scrabble community, so that summer, I planned my next move.
I won't bore you with the trials and tribulations of a naive early-twenties backpacker, but suffice to say that I spent the first half of my twenties traveling the country and the world, and learning a lot about myself in the process. How stereotypical, eh? And yes, most of my travel buddies were Scrabble players.
My first trip abroad was planned entirely around two major international Scrabble tournaments. The first one took place in Bangkok, Thailand, the number-one-ranked city in the world for Scrabble talent. Since now you're wondering how is Thailand the best place for Scrabble? Turns out if you're Amnuay Ploysangngam, a smart businessman who realized he could use Thailand's disregard for international trademark law to his advantage, you can do what the brand holders of Scrabble have no interest in doing: popularizing the competitive side of the game through the language and math skills bestowed upon kids who play the game.
So anyway, my first trip abroad had me playing Scrabble on an oversized Transformers-esque robot in a gigantic city mall, with announcers, spectators, and even one of the princesses of Thailand on hand for the tournament. Coupled with the fact that I beat Nigel Richards (you know, the Kiwi who won the French Scrabble Championships without knowing French) in the finals of the event, I began to see my life as a somewhat absurdist tale in which I do nothing right but play a game really well. And in accepting that I had no idea what I was doing with myself, over the next year, I vowed to let life lead me how it would, knowing full well Scrabble would greatly influence my future. It was at this point I realized that if I wasn't ready to seek out a career, and was going to spend more time traveling and "finding myself," then trying to win the US National Championship, my ultimate Scrabble goal, may as well take priority.
For The Win
As I traveled to forty-six states, four provinces, and 17 other countries during the two-and-a-half years after graduating from UCSD, I began seriously learning all of the words. Having been content with large gaps in my word knowledge over the first half of my Scrabble career, I was dead set on being the best - and to do so, I needed to learn all (at the time) 80,000 two-to-eight-letter words. You can read more about that in my yet-to-come discussion of learning the words but suffice to say by the time I arrived in Buffalo, NY in August 2014, I had most of those 80,000 combinations of letters jammed into my brain. I'd developed my own unique brand of Scrabble strategy, too (a brief section on that is coming soon!)
But before we get to our protagonist's moment of glory, let's step back a few months. In 2014, with the travel bug somewhat sated, and most of my savings happily scattered across some 19 countries, I packed nearly everything into my car one day and moved north to Portland, OR. I wanted to chase a humble dream of working on a Portland food cart, and, less optimistically, realized I needed to figure out my struggling relationship. On the Scrabble front, however, the work appeared to be paying off. I won a major tournament in both the spring and summer of 2014, and from there, I headed to Buffalo, confident that I had my best chance yet to take down Nigel on the biggest North American stage.
Things went well for me at my tenth National Championship - I had some good luck, played really well, and turned a couple of opponent mistakes into extra wins for my scorecard. In fact, I had a pretty solid lead with a few games to go, but as often happens in life, it wasn't going to be that easy. Both my attitude and my play (and perhaps my luck) took a turn for the worse, and I fell out of first place with only two rounds to go. I was borderline devastated. Fortunately, I was able to get back on course, and I won my last two game handily to regain the lead as the tournament ended.
Standing before my Scrabble family, it was all I could do to hold back tears as I gave the most thankful victory speech my tired brain could possibly handle. One month before the ten-year anniversary of my first tournament in Oakland, I had achieved my goal. I'd won Nationals. And on top of that, I was the first of the "younger generation" of players to do so. I won't say winning validated my existence or anything, but let me tell you, to dedicate so much of my being to one endeavor - winning it all was the happiest, most magical day of my life.
Truth is, after winning, I didn't really feel much desire to play competitive Scrabble anymore. The ensuing breakup with my ex didn't help, and as I started to fantasize about what it would take to become one of the leaders of the UX world (you got a looooong way to go, son), I realized there was no longer a point in keeping up the training it takes to be a top Scrabble player. I climbed the mountain, I achieved my goal, and in the process, I'd finally found some direction in life.
Now, some two-and-a-half years later, I've started down a real career path. I haven't played much Scrabble, but it's not to say I've removed myself from the community. I still direct tournaments in San Francisco and New Orleans. And sometimes I go to events and explore the host city while my friends play Scrabble (seriously, it's unbelievably frustrating to play with that much rust.) I also had the honor of mentoring one of the 2015 National School Scrabble Champions. Even if I'm no longer competing at the highest level, I still adore the community, and love to give back whenever I can.
Of course, with some time away from the game, the urge to get back into peak form is nagging at me a little bit. It would be fun to take on the international lexicon and go for a World Championship. There are few things in this world that are more exhilarating than play Scrabble against Nigel Richards, and if I want to play against him at the highest level, it means heading back to the international scene. In the mean time, my goals lie in mastering interaction design (and that journey has only just begun), but, you know, anything is possible. If you told me walking into that game store in 2004 would lead to the trajectory my life has taken ever since, I'd have said you're as crazy as I am.
So until then, whenever then is, whatever passion life presents you with, follow it, own it, and take it to the ends of the earth. You never know what may come of your efforts.
- Conrad BB (January 2017)
If you have any questions about the Scrabble community, please don't hesitate to reach out to me.
Post Script (02.19)
So I went and found a career that I love, and that consumed my life for a few years. With true stability in my life for the first time…ever (…?), I’m finding that I miss playing competitive Scrabble at the highest level. The last couple of years, my main appearances of note involve manning the Twitch stream at US Nationals (230k views as of this update!). You’ll also find me in Kuala Lumpur this August commentating for the inaugural Alchemist showdown between the World #1 and #2!
I returned to the world stage as the #1 seed for team USA at the Alchemist Cup in Penang, Malaysia in December 2018. For the first time in a few years, I was thrilled to be playing high-level Scrabble again, and although we came up short in second place, I was thrilled to lead the way for team USA, finishing 5th overall in the standings.
The reality though is that I’ve “forgotten” so many words as I’ve made room for my UX design career, but perhaps 2019 is the year I find time for both. I’m fairly settled in at work, and I’m finding more free time as a result. And I will need it if I do decide to make a comeback. After all, I’ve got some rating to make up if I want to return to Alchemist for team USA in 2020. No promises on any Scrabble front, but we’ll see. The game is always there for me, and for anyone who needs it. For now, I’m happy to enjoy playing again.