An Interview with Travis Chaney

This week Literary Ashland interviews Scrabble expert Travis Chaney.

Travis Chaney grew up on the border of Oklahoma and Arkansas and began playing Scrabble in his early twenties. Since then he’s become the first player in history to attain expert ratings in Spanish and English Scrabble simultaneously. He competes nationally and internationally and also organized Scrabble tournaments.

EB: How did you get interested in Scrabble? Were you always someone who was interested in games?

TC: I started playing informally after I graduated from high school. I wasn’t a big board game player, but I realized that I had a knack for Scrabble, so I contacted Hasbro inquiring about competitive play. They directed me to the only club in Arkansas, about a four and half hour drive to Jonesboro. I played a session with them, liked it, returned a couple of a months later to Jonesboro to play in my first tournament, got hooked on the tournament scene, and have continued participating.

EB: How long did it take to become an expert player?

TC: It was a slow process for me. I attained a rating of 1600 (considered an “expert” rating) for the first in April of 2002, about 6 years after I played in my first tournament. It took another few years for me to attain what I call “world class” level of play. The tourney scene has evolved significantly since I first started playing. What was considered an expert back then is a mere intermediate level player nowadays.

EB: How do you study or train for tournaments?

TC: Most just studying word lists. I use a study program called Zyzzyva to generate special lists (for example, all the four letter words with a display of letters that can be hooked to the front or back; or all the seven-letter words in order of probability). I play online at Facebook with other top players. Additionally, I play and simulate games using Quackle, a Scrabble-like program developed by high-ranking Scrabblers.

EB: About how often do you complete?

TC: I like to play in about four or five tournaments per year. Since I’ve begun my master’s degree studies and have been training to play in Spanish-language tournaments, I haven’t been able to play in as many the last couple of years.

EB: You’ve studied some of the research on Scrabble. So let me ask, what does it take to be a strong Scrabble player?

TC: Many people have the idea that to be a good player, one must have a mastery of the English language, that someone like an English professor must have a natural propensity toward being an expert Scrabbler. This was well illustrated with a recent comical Xtranormal video online, entitled “So You Want to Be a Professional Scrabble Player?,” written by an actual tournament player. Quite to the contrary, many of the top tournament Scrabble players are great because they have great rote memorization, are able to find (unscramble) patterns in random letters and are mathematicians with understandings of probabilities. Some are not even English speakers at all (e.g., many players from Thailand, where English Scrabble is hugely popular). Even among those who do speak English natively, bystanders who watch a game will often comment: “That is a weird word. What does it mean?” to which the answer is quite frequently “I have no idea.”

EB: I wonder if, or how, tournament Scrabble players’ use of language by their study of the lexicon and of morphological and transpositional characteristics of words. What do you think about that?

TC: One very logical example of how tournament Scrabble might affect one aspect of one’s use of language would be to examine his/her writings. In 2001, Stefan Fatsis’ published Word Freak–Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competive Scrabble Players, a book which was an instant hit–not only among competitive Scrabble players. It is evident that the experience of playing Scrabble competitively (he eventually attained expert tournament rating status) affected his approach to language. For instance, he added an Appendix to his book which states:

    I wrote this book according to the rules of competitive Scrabble. Whenever I wondered whether a word was a word, I consulted the game’s bibles: Official Tournament and Club Word List and/or Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. As a result, almost every two- through fifteen-letter word in the text that isn’t capitalized, hyphenated, contracted, foreign, part of a multiword phrase, or marked with an asterisk is playable in Scrabble.

On the bottom half of the page, he goes on to list every single word in the book that is unacceptable in Scrabble, words like expertdom, experthood, industrywide, neurolinguistic, supergenius and windowless.

EB: So Scrabble expertise can prompt writers to access certain types of words or spellings.

TC: Yes. A few years later, Stefan Fatsis published the book A Few Seconds of Panic in which he documents his experience trying out as a placekicker for the Denver Broncos. As an experiment, I opened to a random page to find some evidence of Scrabble knowledge’s influence. I opened to page 307, where he uses metaphorically the word scimitar. It is quite possible that this word is greater in his awareness because he is likely aware that the word has an alternate spelling of scimetar (along with scimiter, semitar, semitaur, simitar, symitar and symitare if we include British dictionary entries) and that scimetar is in a group of anagrams that also includes ceramist, matrices and mistrace and that this anagram group is fairly high in the probability of eight-letter words (think of seven Scrabble tiles from, through or into another tile on the board), coming in at 4237 out of 40622 (based on computerized probability calculations). In an email correspondence, he mentioned specifically that he dropped the words tsktsks and tennistinto articles he had written for the Wall Street Journal.

EB: Do other Scrabble writers do this as well?

TC: Sure. Another example is from a book written by Scrabble expert Paul McCarthy, Letterati . Page 136 ends with this paragraph:

    The letterati take pride in their word knowledge. After a match it’s not uncommon for a kibbitzer to ask, “Why didn’t you play OCARINA in turn four?” Players also get more satisfaction from slapping down a word like RETIARII than RETAINS, even if they score the same number of points because it demonstrates prowess. It’s not unheard of for someone to play an unusual word when a more prosaic alternative is the strategically best play, because the unusual word is proof of a long-term study commitment.

Notice his use of the word kibbitzer. This is from kibbitz, meaning “to look on and offer unwanted, usually meddlesome, advice to others.” This word is not particularly common; my Google search of the similar word kibbutz yields 3.6 million hits versus just 513,000 for kibbitz. It can be assumed fairly straightforwardly, that kibbitz word would be of interest to a Scrabble player, since it is a seven-letter word–Scrabblers are particularly interested in using all seven of their tiles for a bonus play–and because it involves a number of mid- and high-value tiles, the K worth five points, the B’s three points each. and the Z ten points, creating a significant scoring potential (albeit quite unlikely). Interestingly, if kibbitz is typed in a Google search, it automatically brings up results with kibitz, apparently the more common spelling.

Also, notice that three words begin with the letters P-R-O in the paragraph from McCarthy: prowess, prosaic and proof. Could this also be influenced by the way a Scrabble player organizes like words and looks for common prefixes like pro-?

EB: So writers who are Scrabble experts have certain words or types of words primed for use in their writing.

TC: It seems so. Here’s another illustration. I compared three randomly selected pages from Letterati with three pages of from jazz critic Gary Giddins’ book Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century to see if Scrabble word study influences the length of words used. Scrabble players rarely study words longer than 9 letters (because these words rarely ever come about on their 15 space by 15 space boards), so I counted the number of distinct instances of words of 10 letters or longer. On the pages selected, McCarthy’s book yielded 15, 6, and 8 long words, all of which were common except for expurgation. On the other hand, Giddins’ pages contained 15, 18 and 18, including significantly more erudite words like irascibility, masterworks, and suburbanite. I propose that this lesser concentration of polysyllabics, too, is a manifestation of the focus of a Scrabble players’ word study.

EB: What about the speech of Scrabble players?

TC: Written language is one thing; spoken is quite another. In general, it seems that word knowledge has less influence on the spoken part of language of Scrabble players than the written. Marlon Hill, one of the most highly rated Scrabble players in the United States, has an enormous knowledge of words and an extraordinary ability to anagram. Nevertheless, this clip from the documentary Word Wars shows that his manner of speaking and his choice of words is influenced more by his cultural surroundings. Other interviews by competitive Scrabble players also shows that in general they are not any more grandiloquent than their non-Scrabble-playing counterparts. In fact, the only player to have won two World Championships, Nigel Richards, considered to be the greatest player who ever lived, and who established his word knowledge not by reading lists but by reading the source dictionaries and memorizing them eidetically, is notoriously laconic when it comes to conversation and absolutely refuses interviews from the press. His acceptance speech after winning the 2011 championship was one word: “Nice!”

EB: Does the same hold true for Spanish-language players?

TC: As the sole expert tournament Scrabble player in the world who competes in both English and Spanish, I can say with some certainty that this also appears to be the case among the Spanish-language players: I rarely hear words that fall outside of the speech of normal persons conversing out on the street. Of course, it should be added that the microcosm of competitive Scrabble–like any other niche of aficionados–has its own little argot which means little to those outside the community. It is not uncommon to hear words and phrases like “stems” (groups of letters likely to produce bingos, e.g. AEINST), “triple-triple” (a word which touches two triple word score squares, increasing the word value nine-fold), “hooks” (letters that can be added to the front or back of a word to create another word, e.g. J to the front of NANA to create JNANA) and “outbingo” (to score more bingos, or bonus plays, than one’s opponent).

EB: It sounds like applied linguistics.

TC: Yes, despite their apathy toward learning the definitions to all the words in their heads, Scrabble players are remarkable in tune with morphology, even if they do not know what that means. They would refer to morphemes as “hooks” or “extensions.” They think a lot about how to increase the value of a word by adding morphemes like out-, mis-, -ation, -ment, etc. One classic example is a legendary play by Jim Geary, who played EXISTENT from the triple word score in the lower left hand corner of the board, only to extend it to EXISTENTIALISTS later in the game. Probably only a Scrabble player would think to front-hook TEMPORAL to create ATEMPORAL, front-extend SNORING to OUTSNORING or wrap letters around ALLERGEN to create ANTIALLERGENIC. (These sorts of plays rarely ever happen, but they happen in discussion and theory quite frequently.)

EB: Does the method of study differ from language to language?

TC: Spanish-language players focus a great deal of their study time on learning verbs. Since each verb has scores of inflections, learning one word means learning 40. Likewise most adjectives have feminine and masculine forms and plurals of each of those and frequently turn into adverbs with the addition of –mente. Therefore, even though they may never encounter the word SAINETEE in any text, they are quite familiar with the infinitive form SAINETEAR and would easily find the play through an existing letter on the board. Even those who do not speak the language, like many of the players from Thailand, must understand something about basic morphology in order to be effective at the world championship level. They must know that WIRELESS can be a verb, inflected to WIRELESSED, WIRELESSES and WIRELESSING, for instance, a fact that would not be intuitive even to a native speaker of English.

EB: Would it be fair to say that Scrabble players are only average at language and just better and word memorization and unscrambling obscure words?

TC: Not necessarily. A recent study by Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College and Jonathan Wai of Vanderbilt University, found that Scrabble experts performed better at certain verbal and visuospatial tasks and in lexical decision task than as compared to high-achieving college students. So, while Scrabble players may not use many more obscure words in their speech or writing, they are more likely to recognize these words, whether that involves mere salience or actually full comprehension.

EB: I wonder if Scrabble plays a role in the preservation of words that might otherwise be lost.

TC: It is not conclusive that Scrabble word knowledge profoundly affects evident, everyday verbal and written expressions, but there are indications that such knowledge influences in more subtle ways the persons’ use of words, especially with respect to written language, and their awareness of the technical aspects of language like morphology. If a player is proud to show of his lexical prowess on the board, why not occasionally in conversation with an interlocutor? While their use of sesquipedialians longer than the 15-letter words that fit on a board are likely no more frequent that someone who might have never played a game of Scrabble, it is inevitable that the vastly greater numbers of words in their brain are more probable to appear from time to time in conversation, even if they know a lower proportion of definitions to words. As words boom and sizzle in the evolution of language, Scrabble players surely play a role as preservers and presenters of the arcane and antiquated, even if those words they place on the board are never uttered from their lips.

EB: Thanks for talking with me about this.

TC: You’re very welcome.

The Ashland Scrabble Club meets Sundays at noon at the Boulevard Café in the Stratford Inn.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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