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Vermont Scrabble Tournament Has Its Own Lexicon

  • As his Catamount Cup game against Barbara McGrew, of Burlington, winds down, Ed Liebfried, of Swanzey, N.H., finds an excess of E's on his slate of letters at the Norwich Public Library in Norwich, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Liebfried was able to use all the characters by making the word "beeper" on the board. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ed Liebfried, of Swanzey, N.H., pulls Scrabble tiles to replenish his board after his turn during the Upper Valley Scrabble Club's Catamount Cup at the Norwich Public Library in Norwich, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Andrew Malaby, of Burlington, Vt., left, and B.J. Premore, of West Lebanon, right, laugh together while playing a round of Scrabble during the Catamount Cup tournament at the Norwich Public Library in Norwich, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. The games are timed with 25 minutes per side, and each minute of overtime costs a player 10 points. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Scrabble players from around Vermont and New Hampshire settle in following their potluck lunch for game four of seven in the Catamount Cup tournament at the Norwich Public Library in Norwich, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. The tournament is an annual event put on by the Upper Valley Scrabble Club. said Jeffrey Nelson, of Fairfield, Vt., front left. "The English gets you in the door," said Jeffrey Nelson, of Fairfield, Vt. "The hidden story is the math game." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Friday, November 17, 2017

Ed Liebfried and Elouise Pearl have just finished a spirited game of Scrabble when they spot an inexplicable error on the board.

NF.

While the official Scrabble tournament dictionaries permit a host of arcane two letter words, NF is a non-starter. Nowhere in the English language is “nf” a word, and more to the point, it is not a word in the English language Scrabble dictionaries.

But, while putting down a vertical “horizons,” Pearl didn’t notice that the “n” met up with and married an “f” on the horizontal. Neither did Liebfried.

“I didn’t even look up. I went back to making my next play,” said Liebfried, who lives in Swanzey, N.H. “I’m getting smoked!” he added.

Pearl, of Barnet, Vt., didn’t register the illegitimacy of NF until the board was filled and she’d won — and, as is practice in competitive Scrabble, both players reviewed the words they’d put down. The misplay was allowed to stand, in keeping with Scrabble rules that require a player to challenge an error before the opponent takes a new tile.

It was an unusual lapse for two veteran players, who were competing in last weekend’s sixth annual Catamount Cup, a Scrabble tournament held last weekend at the Norwich Public Library.

The tournament was organized by Iliana Filby and B.J. Premore, two Scrabble-mad players who also run a Monday night game at Tip Top Pottery in White River Junction.

Players from Vermont, and a few New Hampshire-ites called in to beef up the numbers, divided into two teams: Northern and Southern Vermont. The teams were vying to win the engraved, silver-plated Catamount Cup, which sat on a table.

The competition is played round-robin style, but because, this time, there was an odd number of players, someone had to sit out each round. Competitors are each given about 30 minutes of clock time; a completed game takes in the neighborhood of an hour.

Earlier in the tournament, Liebfried had gone up against Vermont’s reigning champion, Jeffrey Nelson, who lives in Fairfield, near St. Albans. Nelson, a very tall man who wears a Fedora while he plays, self-deprecatingly proclaims himself a big fish in the small pond of Vermont Scrabble.

Between them Nelson and Liebfried have already put down boony (shorthand for boondocks), uveal (the pigmented middle of the eye), AA and xu (Vietnamese currency). Liebfried is behind when he plays “senarii,” a Latin verse of six iambs, which earns him 79 points.

“I’m a little rusty,” Liebfried said.

“You’ve been on the bench for a while,” Nelson said, before countering with “toom,” a term that describes emptying a vessel of its contents, particularly in a drinking context.

When it is each man’s turn to pick the next round of tiles for his letter rack, he hoists the bag containing the tiles up into the air, at shoulder level, standard practice when in a competitive tournament. By holding the bag in one hand and removing tiles with the other, a player avoids taking unfair advantage by seeing which tiles are still available.

This week, in fact, it was revealed that one of the world’s leading competitive players, from the U.K., had been caught cheating by doing just what Nelson and Liebfried, and the other players at the library, are at such pains to avoid: getting a peek at the tiles and replacing unfavorable tiles with favorable ones. Not quite cricket, that.

Toward the end of the game Nelson pulls from the bag a Q, which gives him the following rack of tiles: QIASUDT.

Any Scrabble player, whether a competitive or (to use slightly dismissive tournament jargon) a living-room player, knows the Q is worth 10 points. Generally speaking a player does not want to be caught with a Q near the close of a game because she might not be able to get rid of it, an automatic, painful and possibly catastrophic deduction of 20 points called the Q-stick.

“Sometimes what are called power tiles get in the way of winning,” said Tim Hogeboom, who is ranked second in the state after Nelson and who had the idea, in 2012, to initiate the Catamount Cup tournament. He trains using a six-foot-high stack of some 15,000 paper flash cards at his home in Walden, Vt.

Nelson doesn’t seem worried by his combination of letters. He moves the tiles around on the rack. “Audits” is one possibility but Nelson is after much bigger game.

He lays down “diquats,” which is not only a legitimate word (a chemical herbicide) but also, and even better, a Bingo, the term in competitive Scrabble for the automatic 50 points a player accrues when using all seven letters at once.

“Bingo is where it’s at; I love the feeling of making a bingo,” said Filby.

“At some level it’s all about the Bingos,” Liebfried said, waxing philosophical.

But it’s also, he added, about what happens between the Bingos.

It’s about equity, the potential for the next play, and it’s about your play, and your leave, which is the rack minus whatever tiles you put down and where that puts you for your next play. It’s about your position on the board, and your opponent’s position on the board, and denying your opponent the spaces to make high-scoring words.

“It’s a tremendous strategy game,” said Liebfried. “It’s a cross between chess and Texas Hold ’Em. There’s a spatial and board-controlling aspect.”

True, this wasn’t an international competition, where the stakes are extremely high.

The players are the first to point out that they are not on the same scale as world champion Nigel Richards, a New Zealander who actually memorized the entire French dictionary just so he could win a French tournament, even though he couldn’t speak a lick of the language.

But, no matter the level of the game, the blood quickens.

In a corner, Barbara McGrew, from Burlington, and Ellen Jonsson, from White River Junction, are sizing up each other’s words. Dudes. Chits. Jitneys. Purger. Solidest. Mowing. Dingos.

Jonsson puts down “creeped.”

McGrew, whose long, braided hair hangs over one shoulder, mulls it over. “I have to think about that,” she said.

“That person creeped me out,” Jonsson, who wears a knit blue vest, points out.

McGrew accepts “creeped.” The points climb: McGrew with 263 and Jonsson with 222.

McGrew puts down the words “ta” and “azon,” a term for a World War II gliding bomb.

“Oh, how nice for you,” Jonsson murmured.

“But there’s an opening for you,” McGrew said.

“There’s no opening. Dear me,” Jonsson said.

Later Jonsson uses a space McGrew wanted. “You took my spot,” McGrew said, softly.

“I’m not too sorry,” Jonsson said, politely. But then the positions are reversed, with McGrew taking space Jonsson wanted.

“Turnabout is fair play,” McGrew said.

The more obscure words are found in the American and Canadian OCTWL (official club tournament word list), sometimes called the TWL (the tournament word list), or the OWL (official word list). These are not to be confused with Collins Scrabble Words, the U.K. counterpart.

Ileana Filby, who lives in Hartland, prefers the Collins because, she said, it’s “three times the size of North American dictionary, it’s a lot more alive.”

To Collins or not to Collins. Like nearly everything else these days, “it’s been very political, but that’s another issue we shouldn’t get into. It’s very political,” Filby said.

Filby has loved Scrabble since, well, forever. Her pursuits of reading and writing, and her love of language, have served her well, she said. That some Scrabble diehards are obsessive is part of the attraction.

“Color is part of the community. Not any of us are neurotypical,” Filby said. “When I’m with my people at an event, it’s such a joy to have a whole roomful of people who are so passionate about the game.”

In the end, Premore, who lives in West Lebanon, wrote in a follow-up email, the Northern Vermont team ended up winning the Catamount Cup by 19 wins to 16 for Southern Vermont.

Tournament may be too self-important a word for what happens when the teams play together. It’s about the game, the words, the camaraderie, Filby said. “It’s a way of celebrating ourselves and Vermont Scrabble.

Not to mention the food that waits at the lunch break. One of the players is a trained chef.

“Last year he brought maple cream puffs,” Filby said. “OMG. They were so good.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.