In between “Q” words, anagrams, front hooks and cheat sheets, playground gossip and giggles bubble to the surface, breaking a friendly tension over each Scrabble setup at the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreational Center, teams of two seated on either side of the boards.
During practice, coaches Kathy Hummel and Shanae Pritchard tolerate the chatter, to an extent — with the understanding that on April 27 and 28 at the North American School Scrabble Championship, it stops.
But for the past two years, the Bridgehampton Center players have never needed a reminder. The competitive environment lends itself to quiet and concentration, with whispers exchanged only to talk strategy, timing and bingos, or the best way to use an “X,” “J,” or “Z.”
It is all game and no play, Ms. Hummel explained. And on Monday night, the pressure was already mounting among the competitors, who are all under age 12.
“Oh, I’m gonna freak out when we get there,” 11-year-old Steven Tlapando said. “I’ve never been to the championship.”
Donning “Bridgehampton Spelling Bees” t-shirts — with their slogan, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an ‘I,’” printed on the back — Steven and his teammates will travel to Philadelphia next weekend to compete among hundreds of practiced Scrabble players from across the continent.
Over the course of two days, each team of two will play eight non-elimination rounds — six on Saturday and two on Sunday — moving up and down the ranks, and to the front and back of the room, accordingly. Each game may take no longer than 50 minutes, allotting 25 minutes for both teams to play their words and, most importantly, outscore their opponents.
It is no easy feat, Ms. Hummel emphasized, and in order to make this season’s cut, the students have proved themselves during practices, which kicked off last fall. Level of Scrabble experience notwithstanding, each qualifying player has kept a stellar attendance record, she said. They picked up on strategies, showed a proficiency in scorekeeping and time management, and have all grown as players overall.
“In tournament Scrabble, because it is non-elimination, you have to be able to win or lose a game by one point or 1,000 points, catch your breath, sit down and do it all over again against somebody else,” Ms. Hummel said. “You’ve got to be able to shake it off and not get too frustrated. I just reminding them, ‘It’s just a game. It’s just a game. It’s just a game.’”
With 100 million sets sold worldwide, Scrabble has grown from an underground craze to a cultural icon, invented by Poughkeepsie-based, out-of-work architect Alfred Mosher Butts. He combined a classic crossword puzzle with anagrams, studying the front page of The New York Times to determine letter frequency and, ultimately, to decide on the letter distribution that allows for over 120,000 playable words.
But in the early 1930s, game manufacturers didn’t bite, unanimously rejecting the game until Butts met entrepreneur James Brunot. He helped the inventor tweak the rules and design, and trademarked it “SCRABBLE® Brand Crossword Game” in 1948. Production began in an abandoned Connecticut schoolhouse, turning out just 12 games an hour, before they were in high demand.
According to the National Scrabble Association, the president of Macy’s discovered the game while on vacation in the early 1950s and, within a year, “everyone had to have one, to the point that Scrabble games were being rationed to stores around the country.”
“The beauty of Scrabble is you cannot play the same game twice,” Ms. Hummel said. “It’s absolutely impossible. It all has to do with what you draw out of the bag. You can play similar games, you can play the same words every game, but you’re never gonna have the same looking board, you’re never gonna have the same set of tiles played in the same sequence.
“You can learn all the words, you can be a very, very talented person — as far as memorizing words — but if you don’t draw the letters, you can’t make the words,” she continued. “That’s the excitement, and also the frustration.”
Brunot licensed the game to Long Island-based Selchow & Righter Company to market and distribute the games across North America, which was then sold in 1986 to COLECO Industries, the manufacturers of the Cabbage Patch Dolls. Three years later, Hasbro, Inc. purchased the company, adding Scrabble to its arsenal of games overseen by Milton Bradley Company.
Today, the game is found in one of every three American homes, and official Scrabble championships — nationals and worlds — are held on alternate years, according to Ms. Hummel, who worked for the National Scrabble Association from 1990 to 2000.
“While I was there, Milton Bradley and the Association had a conversation about tournament Scrabble being around for 20 years, and they were looking at it saying, ‘Well, eventually some of these people are going to want to retire, and how do we feed a tournament environment for Scrabble?’” she recalled. “So the School Scrabble program was developed.”
With more than 250,000 children playing in 20,000 schools and libraries nationwide, the next generation of Scrabble fanatics is steadily growing and, in Bridgehampton, eager to travel to the annual North American School Scrabble Championship, which began in 2003.
“They’re a little nervous, but they’re very excited to get to go and meet other kids that are doing this around the world — and to even be able to go somewhere else, to get out of Bridgehampton,” said Ms. Pritchard, the director of programs at the child care center. “It’s a good experience for them.”
Outside of the obvious benefits from playing the game — such as boosting vocabulary and math skills — Scrabble also lends itself team building, conflict resolution, overcoming social inhibitions and self-confidence, Ms. Hummel said.
“I play with the kids, I play with my family, but I’ve never competed,” she said. “So I give the kids all kinds of props for being willing to put themselves out there and say, ‘Hey, look, today I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna play 300 minutes of Scrabble against six other teams over the course of a day with a lunch break. I’m gonna learn all these words and I’m gonna learn how to score, and I’m 11 years old.’ I am, totally, very proud of them.”
The coach keeps that in mind when she goes toe-to-toe with a sixth grader, and sometimes loses, she said with a laugh. The students keep her humble, as does the game’s signature mix of strategy and sheer luck of the draw, she said.
“When they’re first starting, I may not play ’em down that 85-point play, but when it gets closer to tournaments, I don’t hold back — and they give it to me, as well,” she said. “They’ll tell their parents, ‘We beat Mrs. Hummel! We beat Mrs. Hummel!’ They have no problem doing the victory dance on that.”