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Scrabble experts compete to make order out of chaos

Shake bags of the small, square Scrabble tiles and the clicking and clacking make Scrabbleholics salivate, like Pavlov's dogs.

They scramble to their seats, filling their game boards with strings of strange letters that form words that we never use in everyday conversation.

Aroid? Qi? Baht?

There was a whole lotta shakin' going on Saturday in Addison, Texas, as top Scrabble players competed in the National Scrabble Championship.

About 400 competitive wordmeisters will play 31 games over five days. The winner gets $10,000.

Sure, to do well at Scrabble you have to know a thing or two about words and spelling. But the game is more than that, top players say. It involves strategy, probability and plain luck — and leaves them yearning to play again and again.

Some started playing when they were kids — and quickly beat adults. Others only started playing only a few years ago — and quickly became masters.

To keep their skills fresh, they're constantly studying words. They review anagrams. They place words on flash cards. They play the game on the computer, on smart phones and with friends.

Competing at the highest level against other top players is like a marathon for the mind.

"It feels like it's a mental boxing match, like counterpunching during a game," said Geoff Thevenot of Austin, Texas, who placed second in the 2006 championship and is back again this year. "Whoever is left standing at the end wins."

Chris Cree of Dallas, one of this year's top competitors, used to get emotional during games, yelling out expletives. He's learned to calm down.

"The best players have their emotions in check," he said. "I just consciously try to not get upset. I'm not born with that."

When Cree plays, he concentrates so hard for so long that he gets headaches. But it's worth it.

"It is the one thing I do best," he said. "If you figure the millions and millions who have picked up a rack, I'm right there at the top."

Cree brushes up on his Scrabble skills every day.

"Word knowledge slips away," he said. "You get confused ... Is it spelled this way or that way?"

The essence of Scrabble is making order out of chaos, said John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association, based in Greenport, N.Y.

"You find that a-ha moment where you find a word and score," he said. "You put your hand in a bag and pull out seven tiles and put them on the rack and it looks like an eye chart. All the random letters. It's up to you to make something out of it. And you do."

When Thevenot dips into a Scrabble bag and pulls out the tiles, the gears start turning.

"What could I have?" he said. "It always feels good when you have the one you need to fill out your rack right."

But even champions have to play the occasional measly word.

There's nothing wrong with making a three-point play if it gives you better letters and helps you land a high-scoring word, said Dave Wiegand of Portland, who won the National Scrabble Championship in 2005. Last year, he won again.

Wiegand started playing Scrabble with family when he was 6 — and it didn't take long before he beat them.

"In Scrabble, you don't need to know what the word means," he said. "You just need to know that it's a word."

When Wiegand went to college, he joined a Scrabble club. They knew he had skills, so they encouraged him to sign up for tournaments.

"They were pretty impressed," he said.

Thevenot didn't play as a kid. Now, he wishes he did. But with just seven years of playing experience, he's pretty good.

"I can sit here and play ardently for the next 50 years and still not be close to solving the thing," he said.

Cree was always interested in words. As a kid, he played Jumble.

In junior high, teachers brought him the newspaper so he could do the crossword: "To keep me quiet."

Cree got hooked on Scrabble after a classmate at Southern Methodist University hosted a tournament.

"I wiped them all out," he said.

Just like any athlete, these top Scrabble word wonks have memorable plays.

For Cree, it was "ytterbia." He remembered Yb, for ytterbium, on the periodic table of chemical elements. When he was a kid, he thought the word was neat.

Playing ytterbia, he said, "was one of the greatest thrills ever."

One time, Wiegand spotted "ago" on the board. He had these letters on his rack: s-n-a-p-d-r-n.

"Suddenly, something clicked," he said.

He placed his tiles on the board and formed "snapdragon."

"What keeps me going is the beautiful possibility the game offers," he said. "Making a play like 'snapdragon' keeps me coming back."

During one game, Thevenot was a goner. But he eyed a simple word on the board: "let."

He studied the tiles on his rack: a-e-o and f-g-l and s.

It didn't take long before he formed the magic word: "flageolets," a small flute.

It won him the game.

The current crop of champions seems to be passing along the Scrabble bug to the next generation.

Maybe it's genetic.

Wiegand has two daughters, one of whom plays often.

"They're both good readers and really smart," he said. "They could be good at it if they put their mind to it."

Cree's 2-year-old daughter prefers picking up word lists instead of toys.

"She likes sitting at the Scrabble board and taking tiles out and putting them on the board," Cree said.

"We've got a Scrabble baby."