Daniel Moglen is stumped. Frowning intently at a Scrabble board in a downtown Davis restaurant, he shuffles seven bright orange tiles around a little tray on the table. He considers his options. He almost plays a word. He hems and haws. Then, inspiration strikes. He reaches for his seven letters and triumphantly lays down a Scrabble smackdown — a nine-letter word, ‘S-N-O-T-T-I-E-S-T,’ which intersects with four other words, creates three new ones and uses point-tripling spaces for a total of 76 points. It’s a great play, and one that might make lesser opponents throw their hands up in frustration. But across the table, Phil Seitzer doesn’t throw a fit. Instead, he smiles and congratulates Moglen on the move.
“‘Snottiest’ — that’s awesome,” Seitzer says. “That is really cool.”
A lot of friends can finish each other’s sentences. But Seitzer and Moglen, two Scrabble champions from Davis, can finish each other’s words, one letter at a time. And last month, they did, at the highest echelon of literate competition: The National Scrabble Championship, a five-day marathon of intense, one-on-one tournament matches inThe two played each other five times during the tournament, taking first and second place in the 100-person field.
For those who missed out on Scrabble in middle school, the game is basically a cross between Othello, chess and a rapid-firePlayers draw letters at random, which they use to spell out words on a board. The game, created by architect Alfred Butts in 1938, is owned by Hasbro and has been played more than a billion times, according to the company website.
Scrabble is a mainstay in rainy-day recess cabinets throughout the United States, and has been used to boost vocabulary, improve word use and bolster spelling skills. But Moglen and Seitzer, who are both doctoral candidates atsay their academic credentials don’t help them compete. Scrabble masters don’t need a photographic memory or a professor’s vocabulary, but they do need an affinity for math and recognizing patterns, said Moglen, who studies linguistics
“The reason is because the person who wins is the person who scores the most points, not the person who has the best word,” he says.
They couldn’t care less what a word means, as long as they can recognize the word when it comes up in their letter tray. Tournament Scrabble players who are serious about their craft don’t balk at laying down swear words when they’re playing old ladies, as long as the word fits on the board and scores big, Moglen says.
“The word does not have the meaning when it’s on the board,” he says.
Those accustomed to playing Scrabble family-style, with three other word nerds around amight have trouble recognizing the version Seitzer and Moglen play. They square off with a deluxe version of the board, complete with a turntable and raised plastic grooves that hold letter tiles in place. The tiles themselves are custom-made for tournament play, devoid of telltale engravings that could tip off players who must reach into a bag to pick them out at random. And in a Kasparov-esque twist, they play with a clock, which they slap after every carefully considered move.
Clock notwithstanding, casual players would be hard-pressed to keep up with Moglen and Seitzer, who don’t rely on conventionalto win. Each has studied lists of words likely to appear in their rack (the insider term for the little tray that holds Scrabble letters). They also memorize words that help them get rid of extra vowels (aalii and aioli, for example) and finish every game by going over the possibilities of what words they could have used. Seitzer still regrets forgetting the word “mitogens” (a chemical compound that encourages cell division) in a decisive tournament final against Moglen.
“I was pretty unhappy, but I got over it,” Seitzer says.
They also put in a lot of time training. When Seitzer decided in February to compete in the tournament, he vowed to spend an hour every day memorizing words. He tried to build the study sessions into the free moments of his day, and would make them up if he got too busy with school. Moglen also devoted his free hours to the game, studying a word list that contained 1,000 seven-letter words.
“I can’t say that I’ve mastered them by any means, but just by going through them, the idea is you just want to be more familiar with them,” Moglen says.
That work paid off July 19, when the pair arrived in Las Vegas. Because they lacked tournament experience, Moglen and Seitzer were matched up with other low-ranked players inBut victories soon began piling up for the newcomers, who won more games than they lost each day of the tournament. As the week progressed, it became clear they were going to play each other for the tournament title.
On the last day of the tournament, they faced off in three games.
“The first game was a total heartbreaker for me,” Seitzer says. “It was one game I’ll never forget.”
The game was a contentious one, with both men playing high-point words, or “bingos,” back and forth.
“Dan plays ‘leister,’ and I counterbingo back with ‘emeriti,’ the plural of emeritus,” Seitzer says. “And then I play ‘bandies’ at a critical moment.”
Moglen eventually won the game after Seitzer failed to spot a word he’d studied specifically for the tournament. After that, the friends played two more games, both of which Moglen won. Seitzer and Moglen continue to face each other in Davis on a weekly basis. The friends sharpen their skills at weekly meetings of their Scrabble club, where they learn words together and, yes, finish each other’s sentences.
“I just want to say that it was a true honor to play Phil for the championship,” Moglen says. “There’re 100 people in the section, and so for the two of us to duke it out for first and second is such a …”
“It was really cool,” Seitzer finishes.