'T he first year we used a Webster's dictionary," says Josephine Jones, director of literacy for the Escondido Public Library. "Everybody and their mother came up to me and said, 'Are you the director of literacy? Next year you need to use The Official Scrabble Dictionary.' What started out as a friendly fundraiser has become a serious competition for Scrabble players. When play starts, it gets so quiet and so intense." On Saturday, February 3, the library will host the third annual Scrabble-thon at Emmanuel Faith Community Church. Jones has asked writer and punster Richard Lederer to host the show. Last year, Joe Lizura (of NBC fame) did the honors. The event raised $17,000, which was used to upgrade the library's annex house (on Broadway and Second in Escondido), a space used for tutors and learners, and a language lab outfitted with a flat-screen computer and TV and instructional language tapes.
"The better players know how, in one turn, they can make two or three words," explains Jones. One word that stuck in Jones's memory after she noticed it on a player's board was qi. According to the fourth edition of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, qi is "the vital force that in Chinese thought is inherent in all things." Most people know qi by its more common spelling, chi. In the Scrabble dictionary, however, the only definition given for chi is "a Greek letter."
Serious Scrabble enthusiasts know the official two-letter-word list by heart. Among the high-scoring two-letter words are za (a pizza), xi (another Greek letter), jo (a "sweetheart"), and xu (Vietnamese currency).
The players also value quiet and concentration. "The CEO of the San Diego Council on Literacy was announcing sponsors and telling players how much time they had left, and the players were, like, 'Uh uh. You need to tell him to shut up -- we need to concentrate,'" remembers Jones.
Julie Kangas, a dentist and a lover of word games, says that despite an upsetting beginning to last year's Scrabble-thon, she is looking forward to returning this year. "Last year, I had [my own] team and I sponsored [another] team for my high school son," says Kangas. In the first round, Kangas was "pitted against" her son. "It was horrible. My first word against my own son was a seven-point bonus word [playing all seven tiles in one turn], and he just glared....
"Playing in a tournament taught me a lot about defense, and I play differently now as a result," says Kangas. In one game, after she'd placed a word horizontally, Kangas's opponent added an S to the end of it and played a word vertically -- making it to the coveted red square reading "TRIPLE WORD SCORE."
To keep up her skills, Kangas practices on her Scrabble computer game and works on memorizing the two-letter-word list. Her advice to other players who enter the tournament is to use time wisely: "Last year, I was trying to make a high-point word and used up all of my time." Each game lasts only 20 minutes, and players are given 3 minutes per turn. "If you're leading toward the end of a game, you want to use up your full 3 minutes so that there will be fewer rounds in the game."
One of the questions many Scrabble players must face is, "To trade or not to trade?" "If I have four Is, that means my opponent needs Is," says Jones. "So I hold on to them; I don't give them up. Don't start throwing stuff back in, because you don't know what you're going to get.
"It's like a philosophy of life. Play with what you've got, and let's see how good you are -- instead of looking for the luck of the draw." If Jones has a poor rack, she thinks, "Instead of being mad and bitching at my opponent, I'm going to look at what I have and work it to my advantage. Then you find that something good will come along."
When it comes to opening up the board (meaning a play might set up an opponent to score big), Jones believes, "If a board is tight, you need to open it up. You've got to approach it with flexibility. Sometimes I've got to give a little to get a little. If you just go one way, people get jammed and lock themselves up, and then every word is a tragedy."
Scrabble-thon (Third annual fundraiser for Escondido Public Library Literacy Services)
Saturday, February 3
8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Emmanuel Faith Community Church
639 E. Felicita Avenue
Cost: $30 registration for individuals, $100 for teams of four
Info: 760-747-2233 or www.escondido.org/library/literacy