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Scrabble tournament a win for state's first club devoted to game

By Chelsi Baker

This is a West Virginia Uncovered project:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the ballroom of a local hotel, 28 of the most enthusiastic wordsmiths around were bent over a long table.

The sound of clicking tiles echoed softly throughout the room. Concentration was in the air. The desire for triple-word scores was undeniable.

It was the last round of a two-day Scrabble tournament Sept. 30 at the Charleston Ramada hotel. One player would end with $350 in winnings. Not to mention a great supply of "amour-propre." That's an 11-letter word for pride that depends on the admiration of your peers.  

Big winners included Ryan Fischer of North Carolina, Brian Galebach of Maryland and Steven Bush of Kentucky. Tina Totten King and Lisa Green, both from West Virginia, also held their own to secure top spots for the Kanawha Valley Scrabble Club.

Also winners were members of the club, who have used their organization as a reason to get together regularly and share their love of competitive spelling.

Brad Mills founded the club after he and his wife, Martha, received a Scrabble board as a wedding gift. The couple spent time playing the game together as newlyweds, but Brad decided he wanted to find a place to play against other enthusiasts.

He quickly discovered there weren't any clubs in the state, and Martha encouraged him to start his own.

"It was an 'if you don't do it, who will?' sort of thing," Brad said. "So, I put an ad in the paper and put up fliers as a big push for recruitment."

In 2005, Brad contacted the North American Scrabble Players Association, a national society made up of nearly 340 players from 46 states and five countries dedicated to promoting clubs and tournaments, and started the NASPA club no. 620 - more fondly known as the Kanawha Valley Scrabble Club. The club was the first of its kind in West Virginia and remains the most active Scrabble organization in the state.

Seven years later, the club has nearly 20 members, although only five or six regularly attend meetings.

They meet at Books-A-Million in Charleston two Saturdays each month and at Los Agaves, a Mexican restaurant in South Charleston, the second Wednesday of each month to play against one another.

Brad says a sense of camaraderie draws players to meetings, but there is also a monetary incentive.

Each player pays $3 to play at meetings, and the member who wins the most games played during a given meeting collects $2 from every player present. The club keeps the other dollar from each player to help pay for tournaments and other expenses.

Many Scrabble enthusiasts say they enjoy learning new words. The practice of finding order in a jumble of letters helps them keep their minds sharp.

They believe playing Words with Friends or similar games on a smartphone is not as much fun as playing actual people. Interacting with other Scrabble enthusiasts is something that keeps them coming back to tournaments and club meetings.

Club members try to participate in tournaments around the country whenever possible and have competed in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Florida and Ohio. Brad competed in the national championship tournament in Orlando, Fla., this past August.

Scrabble may be beloved worldwide now, but it wasn't at first.

It was invented during the Great Depression by Alfred Mosher Butts, an out-of-work architect whose lengthy name would earn you plenty of points on a Scrabble board.

"Butts wanted to create a game that combined the vocabulary skills of crossword puzzles and anagrams, with the additional element of chance," according to the official history of Scrabble at Hasbro's website.

He called the game "Lexico " and then called it "Criss-Cross Words" before finally settling on "Scrabble," which means "to grope frantically" - which itself seems a little bit off for a family-friendly game.

The first Scrabble factory was in an abandoned schoolhouse in Dodgington, Conn., where the letters were stamped one at a time onto wooden tiles. The result: 12 games an hour.

This was not initially lucrative. In 1949, 2,400 Scrabble sets were made at a loss of $450.

Popularity grew gradually. Then, fortune struck. Or so it's said. Even the Hasbro site describes this next part as "legend."

According to the story, the president of Macy's discovered the game on vacation, and ordered some for his store. Within a year, the game was wildly popular and Scrabble had to be rationed in stores.

In 1952, demand was so great, the originators of Scrabble could no longer keep up. They had to license the distribution and marketing to Selchow and Righter Company, a well-known game manufacturer, which was similar but not exactly like Sun Records selling Elvis's contract to RCA.

At that point, Scrabble was basically the game people love today. Now it's a classic.     

Kanawha Valley Scrabble Club co-director Lisa Green got an early start in her Scrabble career. Her father started encouraging her to play when she was 6.

"He was really into it, and he started me with a handicap. It started at 200 points and then it got smaller as I got older, until I was beating him regularly. Then it went away," Lisa said. "We still play. He still beats me sometimes."

A friend agreed to play while she was in college but soon decided he never wanted to play against her again when she beat him by nearly 150 points. After searching for someone willing to play Scrabble with her, Lisa joined the Kanawha Valley Club in 2007. It encourages her to advance and get better at the game.

The Scrabble tournament at the Ramada Inn from Sept. 28-30 was the seventh NASPA-sanctioned tournament hosted by the Kanawha Valley club. Twenty-eight players from states including Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio came in for the event.

Players from other clubs know to look for tournaments on the NASPA website as well as another site dedicated to organized Scrabble play called Kanawha Valley did not need to advertise. They held the tournament, and people came.

While some tournaments can get heated at times, the Kanawha Valley club maintains a fun and positive atmosphere, even if the competition is stiff.

"I remember a few years ago Brad wore a Superman cape," said tournament winner Ryan Fischer of the Charlotte, N.C. Scrabble club. "This year, he gave out leis. The after-hours activities are always fun, too."

Ryan received a $350 payout for his first-place ranking. His highest score was 503 points, and words like "menthols" and "soupier" helped him secure his top spot.

Winning tournaments is important for serious Scrabble players because of the cash prizes for first through fourth places.

NASPA competitors are nationally ranked so they also seek victories to advance their rankings.

"If you play someone who is rated higher than you and you beat them, you gain rating points," Brad said. "Also if you have a higher rating than someone and they beat you, then you lose rating points. The rating system has a complicated mathematical equation to figure out rankings, but it favors the underdog."

Lisa believes the large cash prizes draw players to the Charleston tournament.

"We use entry fees to give out prize money, and our 90 percent payout is higher than some of the other tournaments' prizes."

Lisa placed fourth in her division and claimed a modest winning.

"I won 80 bucks! Which makes me happy because I'm not used to winning money," she said.

While the club holds organized study sessions for members to build their vocabulary and practice techniques, Lisa says the best way to get better is to play.

Playing against real people rather than a computer is key, and that makes meetings that much more important. Meetings allow members to practice and build their skill while having fun with friends.

"The cool thing about Scrabble is you're playing the same game over and over, but really it's a different game every time," she said. "The same letters are coming out of the bag, but you'll never have the same game more than once."

If you are interested in joining the Kanawha Valley Scrabble Club, contact Brad Mills at or call 304-345-0484 during evening hours. 


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