The King's Cup Scrabble tournament, which is held over four days each July in Bangkok, is basically the board game's Wimbledon, with a ten-thousand-dollar prize and trophy awarded by the Thai royal family to the winner. Among the competitors this year was Chris Lipe, a thirty-four-year-old computer programmer from Clinton, New York, who last year finished second in the World Scrabble Championship, in London. During the opening ceremony last month in Bangkok, Lipe watched the othersixty-four players from fifteen countriesenter a giant convention hall surrounded by boxes of a poultry-based health tonic called "Essence of Chicken," which was the tournament's official sponsor. The player representing Scotland walked in accompanied by bagpipe music and images of kilted dancers in the highlands. "For the Canadians," Lipe said, "they had some music nobody recognized and a tourist video of Japanese businessmen skiing."
Then it was his turn. Lipe strode toward the stage alongside one of the two other Americans who'd flown eight thousand miles, paying their own way, to play Scrabble in a windowless room. Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind" blared from the speakers and images of the Statue of Liberty flashed on a screen beside the stage as thousands of Thai schoolchildren cheered. "I think ours was the best intro," Lipe said. He has played competitive Scrabble in Warsaw, Prague, Oslo, Las Vegas, and Cleveland, but never before encountered such fanfare. After earning runner-up honors at the world championships last year, interest in his accomplishment back home amounted to awrite-up in a local paperand a "certificate of recognition" from his "slightly surprised" co-workers.
This year, Lipe finished a disappointing eighteenth at the King's Cup, dropping from within the top five on the tournament's final day. But he still managed to do something he'd never done before: he played the word "felch," a sexual bit of slang that only became acceptable in competitive Scrabble in 2012. No spectators laughed after he placed his tiles. Scrabble does not require that you know the meanings of the words you play, though Lipe, at least, knew the definition of this one. (He spends two to three hours a day studying word lists.)
"I was pretty excited to play it," he said. "And I guess I might have chuckled a little under my breath."
A few times each decade, the number of acceptable Scrabble words grows. Somesixty-five hundred new words—“lolz,”“shizzle,” and“blech” among them—will officially enter one of the two major competitive Scrabble lexicons on September 1st of this year. The grumbling that results when a word list lengthens is not so much about the inclusion of obscene or offensive words—though a cleaned-up list wascontroversially published in 1996, after someone protested the inclusion of "jew" as a verb. Instead, it is more about the growing divide between two Scrabble communities: North America and everywhere else.
Although the game dates back to the early nineteen-thirties, tournament Scrabble didn't develop until the late nineteen-seventies, appearing independently in North America and Britain. The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (published by Merriam-Webster and known in Scrabble circles as O.S.P.D.) became the word list of choice in North America. The more inclusive Chambers Dictionary was adopted in Britain, as well as in nearly all of the English-speaking countries to which the game soon spread; this was the Official Scrabble Wordlist (known as O.S.W.).
When the first Scrabble World Championship took place, in London, in 1991, it was agreed that any word from either list could be used; this combined list became known, in a rejiggered formulation typical of the Scrabble community, as SOWPODS. Within a decade, almost all O.S.W. countries had switched to SOWPODS, which the Collins Dictionary began publishing, in 2007, as Collins Scrabble Words (C.S.W.). But North American players didn't make the switch. The divide between the two worlds and their word lists was, and remains, very large: Collins now includes 276,663 words between two and fifteen letters, compared with just 187,639 in the North American "tournament word list" or T.W.L. (a version of the O.S.P.D. that is, among other things, not sanitized to protect children and sensitive players).
"The word list arguments have been going on for maybe twenty years now, almost entirely in a repetitive, pointless circle," said Geoff Thevenot, a copy editor from Chicago who is currently thetwelfth-bestCollins player in North America. "The climate has shifted, though." During the last five years, the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA) has sanctioned Collins events in North America. "We have coexistence now, though there are a lot of areas of the continent with little or no Collins tournament action," Thevenot said.
There are now around fifteen hundred active tournament-level Scrabble players in North America, according to Thevenot. Only two hundred or so, he said, play with the Collins word list rather than the T.W.L. Thevenot and Lipe—who are both among the Collins contingent—said that many of those who aren't playing the Collins game support moving in that direction, toward a lingua franca, but aren't doing so because it's hard for players to juggle two word lists in their brains, and, right now, Collins players are more likely to be experts who know words that T.W.L. players don't. T.W.L. players may even feel that they shouldn't have to know such words: the Scrabble world, even at its highest levels, contains varied notions of what constitutes "proper" usage and what should or should not be a playable word. Thevenot said that he has long found the "folk prescriptivism" of competitive Scrabble's "armchair lexicographers" vexing.
"If you play at all seriously, you pretty much have to accept that you'll be learning a lot of very specialized, obscure words," Thevenot said. "To me, that's a feature, not a bug. I love words, the weirder the better. There's a reason I play Scrabble instead of chess or Go or bridge."
The future of competitive Scrabble is likely a Collins world full of ever stranger words. "The U.S. isn't the eight-hundred-pound gorilla on the Scrabble block that it was twenty years ago," Thevenot said. "The game has grown a lot around the world since then. There are vibrant scenes in Thailand, Nigeria, Malaysia, Singapore, India and many more places." And players in all of these communities want to communicate with each other about how to play the game. Having a common word list would help. "The national borders and oceans that surround us are insignificant these days," Lipe said. "There are friendships across the world within the Scrabble community. We just want to use the same words."
But there’s another potential hurdle: Hasbro owns the game in North America, while Mattel owns it everywhere else. Hasbro has long had a publishing contract with Merriam-Webster, not Collins, and the company has little financial incentive to abandon that arrangement in order to satisfy a very small segment of its domestic market. "Hasbro also sponsors the North American Scrabble Championship," said Lipe, who suspects that, as he put it, "NASPA's leadership doesn't want to complicate that relationship by pushing for a different word list."
Nonetheless, on a recent afternoon, Lipe practiced his Collins game in New York's Washington Square Park against his friend Kate Fukawa-Connelly, a highly ranked T.W.L. player who works as a director of student advising at Princeton. She was also learning Collins. Bystanders stared as Lipe drew letters from his My Little Pony-themed tile bag, a gift from his Scrabble-playing girlfriend. "I have all the vowels," Fukawa-Connelly said at one point, frustrated with her letters. "I know Collins has more things to do with this rack than I can do right now."
Moments later, Lipe made a sixty-four-point bingo play: "naperies." Neither player was sure what it meant. "I always assumed it had to do with the nape of your neck," said Fukawa-Connely. "But I just know it's a word you can make out of'aperies.' " They paused, suddenly curious, to consult the Scrabble app on their iPhones. As it turns out,"naperies" refers to table linens. "The mind only has room for so much information," Lipe said, giving his tile bag a shake.