A GAME OF WORDS
Over 70 years ago, Alfred Mosher Butts invented the game of Scrabble in the midst of the Great Depression. He was out of work as an architect and wanted to create a board game that combined aspects of chance and vocabulary skills; thus, an American classic was born, operating on the same basis as the game does now: a selection of letters with point values based on their probability of use.
Today, Scrabble is one of the most popular board games and has even inspired a competitive association of players and tournaments normally dominated by adults. Bucking the trend at age 17 is local Joey Kraftchik, who is not just an avid Scrabbler but has competed in the National Scrabble Championship every year since 2007.
Kraftchik began playing Scrabble as a family hobby, and his mother soon recognized his talent. She contacted the local club and got in contact with Dave Leifer, who soon became Kraftchik’s friend and mentor; for the past seven years, the two have gotten together on a regular basis to play, and Kraftchik’s abilities have even surpassed those of Leifer.
Leifer began playing scrabble when his children were attending junior high school.
“I saw a Scrabble Club in the local newspaper, and I had always liked Scrabble, so I went and got hooked within a month,” he explained.
Kraftchik was also hooked on the game from the start.
“Every game is so different,” he said. “It challenges you to think and it’s fun to play professionally when you are good at it.”
The Competitive Scene
Kraftchik advanced quickly, and has evolved from playing Scrabble computer games to now being in the Expert Division. To train for a tournament, he studies words through a probability system, focusing on words most likely to come up during a game.
Leifer says that many serious players study lists of strange words, perhaps those ending in V, or containing a J. Also key is the ability to rearrange the letters in front of oneself.
“You have to be able to anagram,” Leifer said. “Given any seven letters, the top-level players will be able to tell you within a second every possibility in that rack of letters.”
Kraftchik explains that the biggest difference in “kitchen-table” versus tournament Scrabble is the difficulty and larger array of words the players use (his own most obscure play was “tolarjev,” a Slovenian monetary unit). Competitive Scrabble also depends on defense, not just racking up the most points.
Players try to balance their rack, meaning they want a mixture of consonants and vowels. Each match also has a time limit of 25 minutes per opponent, which can put pressure on the players, Leifer explains.
During a game, players can use “ph onies,” a word that doesn’t exist, but the opponent can challenge it. If it really isn’t a word, the player loses a turn. When a player puts all seven letters on the board at once, it is called a “Bingo,” but the best Scrabble move is putting down a word that stretches from one triple-word square to another.
From Aug. 11 through 15, Kraftchik and Leifer attended the National Scrabble Tournament in Orlando. Though Kraftchik has attended since 2007, this is the first time he competed in the top division, in which he 31 games in five days; as of press time, his record was 7-11 and his conglomerate margin plus-42, good enough for a ranking 59th in the division.
At each tournament, Kraftchik has been given a rank based on his performance against other players; going into this championship, his rating was 1748 (the average being around 1100) and is ranked 160th out of all players who have competed in the past two years.
Beyond the Board
To Kraftchik, Scrabble is not just a board game.
“I’ve learned how to face adversity,” he said. “When I was younger, I couldn’t deal with [losing] as well, but as I’ve gotten older I realized you can’t let one game get to you because you’ll play a lot of games.”
Leifer has also learned from his many years of Scrabble playing. Much like Kraftchik, he knows that “you have to be humble because you’ll have losing streaks and games where luck isn’t with you, even if you play hard.”
Despite his success in the Scrabble world, Kraftchik is very humble and enjoys the thrill of the game. Beyond his game of choice, he plays basketball, is the statistician and announcer for the Centennial High School basketball team, plays piano and is fluent in Spanish.
He also likes meeting new people and explains that he has met some of his best friends through Scrabble tournaments. However, the close relationship between Leifer and Kraftchik is clearly one of the most important benefits from their love of Scrabble.
“Dave [Leifer] has three granddaughters, and I asked him if he ever wished he had a grandson, but he said ‘I have Joey,’” Amy Kraftchik, Joey’s mother, said. “They adore each other.”
By Jessie Miller