Scrabble Tournament Reveals Growing Excitement for an Old Game
Who knew a thriving Scrabble culture exists in at least two CHCCS elementary schools, Seawell and Carrboro, even during this era of Fortnite and YouTube obsessions? And who would guess that dozens of fourth and fifth grade students at the two schools can trounce many adult fans of the venerable board game? Welcome to the world of CHCCS Scrabble clubs.
On Saturday, March 9, at Seawell Elementary School (SES), 16 pairs of Scrabble players competed for the top prize at the NC School Scrabble Tournament during an all-day event. The winning pair, brothers Rubens and Thomas Shundi from SES and Smith Middle (SMS), won all five games against the competition, which came from as far away as Charlotte.
Rachel Baer, mother of Henry Ghitelman, fifth grade Carrboro Elementary School (CES) club member, said, “He’s always loved wordplay—things like palindromes and puns. He’s also a strategic kid, so I think Scrabble appeals to him for the wordsmithing, as well as the strategy needed to see the entire board and think a few turns ahead (much like you need to do with chess).”
The Scrabble Club at SES has been a hub for word-lovers since 2004. Started by David Klionsky, the school’s information technology facilitator, the club is open to any fourth or fifth grade student at SES. Always a popular after school activity with 35 or 40 students participating, this year’s club serves 50 children. They meet every Thursday in the media center, warming up with a word puzzle or challenge, before dividing into pairs for games. Klionsky launched the annual School Scrabble Championship for CHCCS students in 2005. Occasionally, players travel to the National School Scrabble Championship. Former SES students Kevin Bowerman and Raymond Gao won the $10,000 1st Prize in 2013.
The club at CES is only in its third year, but its members are diehards. The club organizer and coach is Amy Tanz, a volunteer whose daughter attended CES years ago (and is now working on her doctorate). Tanz is such a passionate Scrabble player that her family urged her to branch out beyond the 10 or more games she plays online every day. So she returned to her daughter’s elementary school, and after plenty of planning conversations, she started a Thursday club for fourth and fifth grade students at CES.
Research underscores the intellectual and cognitive benefits of playing Scrabble that reach beyond the obvious gains in vocabulary-building, spelling and math. The game’s strategy requires attention to details, spatial organization and risk-taking. And serious players memorize categories like two-letter words and short Q words. Tanz estimates she has played well over 20,000 games in her life. Baer said of Henry, “He’s also had fun learning all of the two-letter words that can often make or break a game. The kid has beaten me on multiple occasions using two-letter words like the infamous “qi” and “za”—short for pizza of course!”
Kelley O’Brien’s son, Jin Andrews, is in fifth grade at CES, and he was Ghitelman’s partner at the tournament. O’Brien said they just found out about the tournament a few days before the event, but “the boys decided to give it a try. They had never done any formal ‘competition’ in Scrabble, so it was definitely the unknown for them. Amy Tanz found out that the boys were going to compete and she came for the whole day, which was really amazing.”
Klionsky came to education and IT support after a career in the theater. According to a 2015 News and Observer profile for Tar Heel of the Week, “He was drawn to Scrabble after reading ‘Word Freak,’ a nonfiction book that brought to light the intense culture of competitive Scrabble, including controversy over which words should be allowed and the author’s own rise to a top player.” In the article, Klionsky claims to be a better organizer and coach than actual player. “To be a world-class Scrabble player, you have to devote a good portion of your life to studying the dictionary. The rest of us just like words and like to play.” He said that his students regularly beat him in games.
“Students love researching obscure words in the hopes that they can use those words against their opponents,” said Klionsky. “But just having a large vocabulary does not make one a great Scrabble player! Good players also need the ability to decode (unscramble) words in their heads, and a good knowledge of math and probability is also needed. And like in chess, good Scrabble players need to think two or three moves ahead. Since School Scrabble players compete in teams (unlike adults, who play solo), great players also know how to collaborate with others. These are not just good Scrabble skills, but great life skills as well!”