Spelling Be Hot

This Monday night is like most others for several local members of the National Scrabble Association (NSA). Sequestered in the adult-activities room at a Coral Gables youth complex, they huddle around their boards, playing Hasbro's more than 50-year-old game of letters. They bluff, challenge, manage their racks of tiles, construct anagrams, tick off points, and compete fiercely to build strange lexical monuments....

Art Finkle has been down 40 to 50 points all game, and now his rival is about to lay down the law. More accurately attorney Steve Polatnik lays down G-E-N-T-O-O; "type of penguin," he scribbles secretly, the brief gleam in his eye the only hint of satisfaction in his otherwise impassive face. The wiry world-class player manipulates his rack with surgical precision. Finkle flinches, almost imperceptibly, and then, though skeptical, restarts his 25-minute timer without challenging. Polatnik smirks subtlely as he plunges into the plaid cloth bag for six new tiles.

Scrabble, the rainy-day pastime many kids loathed, has given rise to a thriving subculture with its own language and etiquette, 200 or so official clubs, and enough rules to govern a small nation. The verbose world is colorfully detailed in the highly praised tome Word Freak by Wall Street Journal reporter and Scrabble expert Stefan Fatsis. The journalist's immersion and ascent began in earnest when he challenged NSA director John D. Williams, Jr., to a fateful game in 1997 and beat the pants off him.

"Miami is considered one of the hotbeds of the Scrabble scene," offers Williams, citing flourishing clubs and at least two members competing at the world level. In fact the head of the Gables klatch, Robert Mulet, who's dedicated more than twenty years to the game, is a former U.S. champion, and, like Scrabble's Depression-era inventor, Alfred Butts, an architect. And despite this particular routing, Finkle, who competes nationally, is not exactly Scrabble roadkill. In the game's caste system, player rankings currently range from 400 at the bottom to just over 2000 at the top. Finkle says he's at about 1500. Polatnik is in the coveted 2000-and-above realm. At the World Scrabble Championships this December, he'll face players from 40 countries vying for a $25,000 purse.

As Finkle's clock winds down, his last desperate move to even the score is a seven-letter play ("bingo" in Scrabble speak). But Polatnik takes one look at the word and says "hold," stopping time. With this challenge another player wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Bad spellers of the world untie" instantly appears to arbitrate, brandishing the Official Tournament and Club Word List. Barely hiding his glee (Finkle trounced him in the previous game), he declares Finkle's swan song, O-U-T-L-E-N-D-S, to be unacceptable. Even so, Finkle is relentless: He looks up Gentoo to make sure it's a word and, in true Scrabble spirit (the name of the game means "to grope frantically"), gives a Mel Brooksian monologue for outlends, explaining with a grin how one bank can outlend another. In the end, though, Polatnik has the final painful word: dit.

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Robin Shear