Scrabble Club Attracts People Wild About Words -- Serious Players Don't Rely On Luck

Outside, it was a typical Seattle night - cold, wet and dark. Inside the Josephinum Residence, on Second Avenue, the only sound in the dining room was heavy breathing and the ticking of little clocks.

While the clocks ticked, 18 people sat, hunched over tables, their minds tossing letters around like confetti, obsessed with a single thought - ``Win!''

It was the regular weekly (6:30 p.m. Tuesday start) gathering of the Seattle Scrabble Club, an organization for serious players of a game known to millions.

Doug Honig's eyes darted from the Scrabble board to the seven lettered tiles in front of him. Pressure mounted as a time clock ticked ominously at his elbow. He had 25 minutes to make all his moves or be penalized.

Across the table, David Young, recent winner of $500 and the Open Division title in an all-comers Scrabble Tournament at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, studied his own tiles and watched the body language of Honig, a longtime adversary.

Moments later, Honig flung down E-S-T-R-U-A-L, working off another word and landing on the right squares to get maximum count. He punched his clock. Young studied Honig's unblinking eyes to determine whether they reflected confidence or indecision.

Sensing the latter, Young shouted ``Challenge,'' bringing a director to the table to check ``estrual'' in a well-thumbed Official Scrabble Players' Dictionary.

As the director pronounced the word legitimate (it has to do with menstrual cycles), Honig sighed and permitted himself a fleeting smile. Knowing the root word ``estrus,'' he'd been reasonably confident, but not positive.

Young shrugged philosophically. It had been worth the challenge. If the word had not been legitimate, Honig would have forfeited the points and his turn. Instead, Honig got an extra turn and eventual victory in a close match.

The difference between winning and losing at Seattle Scrabble Club matches hinges on many things.

A good vocabulary and an ability to spell are important. So is an anagramming talent - the ability to mentally juggle letters to form words, and then to place them for maximum point count.

But Young, who teaches Scrabble with Honig at the Experimental College, says ``gamesmanship . . . just being good at knowing how to win games'' may be what separates the top players from the good players.

``It's important to be able to size up your opponent and sense what you can get away with and what you can't,'' Young adds.

Good Scrabble players downplay luck. Over a night's play, they say, luck evens out. As proof, they cite Ken Clark, a data processor, who almost always wins no matter what letters he draws. Clark has the club's highest ranking, based on his showing in local matches and national tournaments.

The club's second-ranked player, Ann Ferguson, a typesetter and medical transcriber, says Clark is the only person against whom she intentionally would play a phony word, ``because you might get away with it and that's about the only way to beat him.''

Ferguson, who won the $1,100 top prize in a Western Regional Open Scrabble competition last year, holds the club record for the highest single-game score (681 points), which included another club record - six ``bingos'' (times when she played all seven letters and earned 50-point bonuses).

Each of the club's 40-some members has a point average, based on scores against opponents in club matches. Clark, for instance, averages well over 400 points a game. No other club member tops 400. But Ferguson, Honig, Young and Carla Gallagher, who describes herself as ``a White Center housewife,'' average in the high 300s.

To facilitate play at the club, Scrabble boards are set up on Lazy Susan devices. Tiles (100) are pulled from bags rather than spread out face-down on the table.

An evening's play consists of three games. Boards quickly fill with words. ``Equate,'' ``sonnet'' and ``vacuum'' are laid down for triple-word scores. Opponents counter with ``opaque,'' ``antigen,'' ``mastoid,'' ``covert'' and ``divest.''

``I joined the club because I got tired of beating my dad all the time,'' says Bryan Ericksen, 17, who attends Mariner High School in Everett. Does being known as a Scrabble player impress girls? ``I haven't found one yet who doesn't laugh at it,'' Ericksen said.

Hard-core Scrabble players come from all walks of life.

Honig is a writer-historian who produces documentaries for public radio and television stations. Young lists his occupations as tennis teacher, poker player and artist.

Eileen Chambers runs a construction company. Dan Goodwin is majoring in physics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, but attends club meetings ``to get my Scrabble fix'' when he's home on vacation.

Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect, invented Scrabble in his New York City apartment in 1931, hand-carving each of the original tiles, then assigning points to the letters by studying the front page of the New York Times to determine the frequency of letter use. The game became a national craze in the early 1950s.

The biggest event for the local club is the annual Seattle-Portland Scrabble Tournament - head-to-head, no-holds-barred, with the winner having bragging rights for a year.

A few years ago, says Honig, everything hinged on the final two games, which matched Seattle's top two players against Portland's best. Seattle's players jumped off to seemingly insurmountable leads.

And then, to everyone's horror, it was discovered that the players - seated next to each other at a table - inadvertently had been reaching into each others' bags to get their tiles.

The matches were halted, new games begun. ``And that time they waxed us,'' says Honig sadly.

That's life in Scrabble's fast lane.