Toronto resident Robin Pollock Daniel is currently in Orlando, Fla., competing in the National Scrabble Championship, where wordsmiths battle over five days for bragging rights and $10,000. Ms. Daniel spoke to The Globe and Mail about training, trash-talking, and the definition of “zarf.”
You were in second place earlier. How are things going today?
I’m being massacred. Everybody’s scoring over 500 against me. There’s still [some] games to go. What they did to me, I can do to them with just the right tiles.
What makes someone a great Scrabble player?
Certainly, you have to have some obsessive qualities. You have to love studying. We’re not computers; we don’t have an eidetic memory. You’re just going to have to keep reviewing and reviewing and reviewing. You have to love analyzing games, looking at other people, questioning what they did and how that differs from what you do and why theirs is better or worse.
I’ve seen you refer to Scrabble as a mathematical game, rather than a word game.
Oh, it absolutely is, because the configuration of the board is very architectural. And, in fact, Alfred [Mosher] Butts, who created Scrabble, was an architect. So there’s a symmetry to it, there are patterns that you create. And, in fact, the Thai players don’t even speak English. They learn the letters as strings of acceptable constructs.
Your rating is 2047. If someone just strings together three- and four-letter words, what would their rating be?
They start you out at around 500. You wouldn’t be much above that. It depends. Are you playing “zax,” which is a more sophisticated, knowledgeable word, or are you playing “cat,” which … a two-year-old knows. We always know when someone comes to the club whether they’re going to be a good player or not. The word that got me was somebody played “zarf.” In Russian tea sets, you put the glass into a silver holder, and that’s the zarf.
Yeah, and I saw that word and I [said]: “Oh my god. I don’t know that word. I need to know that.” And someone else will come to the club and [say]: ‘Zarf? That’s not a word. I’m leaving.’ And that’s the difference.
Do Scrabble players ever trash talk? What’s your interaction with your opponents?
That’s called “coffee-housing”… and that’s forbidden. I mean, people will do it, they’ll moan, they’ll this or that. If somebody wants to talk themselves out of having a good mindset, I’m all for it, as long as they’re not disturbing me.
Do you make any money doing this?
Yeah, sure. I mean, you don’t make a lot of money. This one you can make $10,000.
Do you like any board games as much as you like Scrabble?
Well, I like playing Boggle online. My aunt says that I have the mind for bridge. And then I said to her [that] I can only have one obsession per life, and this is it.