Spell It Out for Me

The Kanawha Valley Scrabble Club is a small group of dedicated wordsmiths that meets weekly in Charleston to perfect the art of organized Scrabble play.

By Chelsi Baker | 11/09/2012

Inside the ballroom at the Ramada Inn in Charleston on Sept. 30, 40 faces were bent over a long table. The sound of clicking tiles echoed softly throughout the room. It was the last round of a two-day Scrabble tournament that for one player would end in $350 in winnings.

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.

Brad Mills founded the Kanawha Valley Scrabble 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 Mills decided he wanted to find a place to play against other enthusiasts.

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

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

In 2005, Mills contacted the North American Scrabble Players Association, a national Scrabble society made up of nearly 340 players from 46 U.S. states and five countries dedicated to promoting clubs and tournaments, and started the NASPA club #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, though only five or six members regularly attend meetings. Members 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.

Mills 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 to make a word helps them keep their minds sharp. They believe playing Words with Friends or similar games on the phone is not as fun as physically playing against other people, and 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. Mills competed in the national championship tournament in Orlando, Fla., this past August.

Club Co-Director Lisa Green got an early start in her Scrabble career. Her father started encouraging her to play when she was six.

“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,” said Green. “We still play. He still beats me sometimes.”

A friend agreed to play against her 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, Green 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. Forty players from states including Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio came in for the event.

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

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

“I remember a few years ago Brad (Mills) 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 also always fun, too.”

Fischer 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 spot at the top.

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

Players at tournaments are nationally ranked among all NASPA competitors. They want to gain rating points through victories in order to advance their ranking.

“If you play someone who is rated higher than you and you beat them, you gain rating points,” Mills 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.”

Green 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.”

While Green did not secure a spot that resulted in a large sum of money, she 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,” Green said.

While the club holds organized study sessions for members to build their vocabulary and practice techniques, Green says the best way to get better is to play as many games as you can.

Playing against real people, and not against the computer is key, which 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 at wvscrabble@gmail.com or call 304-345-0484 during evening hours.

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