There aren’t many people who can claim to be the world’s 1,214th best Scrabble player. In fact, there are only three. Along with a heavy-set woman named Annette Bailey and 66-year-old William P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe (the basis for Field of Dreams), Edgar V. Thomas ’05 is part of that National Scrabble Association-recognized triumvirate.
Thomas, a word-arranging aficionado since the age of 14, entered the subculture of competitive Scrabble in the summer of 2001 at the Memphis Scrabble Club. At Harvard, Thomas hones his wordplay skills at the Sunday night meetings of the Harvard Scrabble Club, of which he is the founder and president. Among his favorite Scrabble moments was a victory over a master who started the match with the word ingesta (definition: “that which is introduced into the body by the stomach or alimentary canal”). However, Thomas is no braggart. “Most of my memories are about getting burned at the last second,” he says.
Spartan mothers used to send their send their sons into battle with shields and spears. The mother of Andrew J. Washkowitz ’04 sends him into competition armed only with tiles and a Scrabble rack. Five years ago, Ma Washkowitz, an aggressive Scrabbler, started teaching Andy how to play to win.
“I started [studying] because my mother was a master and I was tired of her taking me out all the time,” he says. But even as his game improved, Washkowitz still didn’t think about competing until reading the book Word Freak, a true account of onvve man’s observations in the bizarro world of tournament Scrabble.
A few racks later, Washkowitz was nationally ranked. “It’s not hard to get a national ranking,” he says. “It sounds better than it is—just another thing to put on the résumé.” When he’s at school and far from his biggest rival—mom—Washkowitz usually competes against a computer.
The placid skies on Sunday afternoon belie the fevered pitch in Quincy House Courtyard as two titans of the tiles met to see which Harvard student can best spell long and/or obscure words out of tiny white squares. A stoic Thomas, clad in a blue-and-gray shirt and khakis, shakes hands with a fidgety Washkowitz. Drawing letters from the bag to determine who goes first, Washkowitz wins. Shifting in his seat, he squints in the sunlight and scrutinizes his rack, placing VOID on the board. Thomas quickly counters with MAT, using the “A” to morph Washkowitz’s word into AVOID. A few plays into the game, Thomas turns to his roommate and official scorekeeper, Daniel L. Suzman ’05, to remind him to yell out the score every few moves. Suzman announces that the two are neck and neck, with Washkowitz slightly in the lead. As play continues, Washkowitz begins to fidget even more spastically, alternately sipping coffee, puffing from cigarettes and flicking at his legs, his hands almost as busy as his pink Oxford shirt. Complimenting Thomas on his play, Washkowitz is surprised by the low score of his rival’s word. “I hate that, when you put down a good word and don’t get many points,” he consoles his opponent. When FM wonders whether words like un and xi are legitimate, both immediately nod, informing the spectators that there are 98 such sanctioned two-letter words. “There are very definite rules to the game,” Washkowitz says. “You have certain rules to play with so you learn the words and play with them.” The game remains tight, with each scoring over 80 points on words in the same round. Though Thomas’ face betrays no emotion and he continues to work quickly through his turns, he begins to ask for score updates more often. Washkowitz, meanwhile, begins to take more time pondering his rack—now punching his knees and smoking furiously. When Thomas arranges “NOSTRIL” vertically on the board, Washkowitz throws his head back in admiration. “That’s a great word, no suffixes or prefixes,” he says. Regrouping and using a blank tile, he scores big with the one-two punch of “FUSED” and “GREETER.” Thomas anxiously asks for the score. At 297-295, the game is close as the last few tiles are pulled from the bag. At 324-314, Thomas with a small lead, they head into the final round. Thomas slowly spells out a word backwards—keeping everyone at the table in suspense as he slowly reveals his final word—“GINGERED” (definition: to season with ginger), a whopping 80-pointer that cements his victory. Washkowitz feebly arranges his last word and concedes. Final score: 420-315.