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How a Carpenter Set a Scrabble Record (Or Did He?)

Ten years ago, Stefan Fatsis published the book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. Since then, Scrabble has become even more competitive, thanks in part to the publicity from Word Freak. Fatsis has just released a tenth anniversary edition, with an afterword on the last decade's developments. Here we present an excerpt from the afterword about an astounding match that "rocked the Scrabble world."

On October 12, 2006, in the basement of a Unitarian church on the town green in Lexington, Massachusetts, a forty-three-year-old carpenter named Michael Cresta scored 830 points in a game. His opponent, Wayne Yorra, who worked at a supermarket deli counter, scored 490. Together they set three North American records: the most points in a game by one player; the most total points in a game, 1,320; and the most points on a single turn, 365, for Cresta's play of QUIXOTRY.

The game rocked the Scrabble world. Mark Landsberg's record of 770 had stood for thirteen years, and it had been threatened only infrequently. Cresta's 830 was the anagrammatic equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point National Basketball Association game in 1962: a remarkable, highly aberrational event with potential staying power. The tile gods were smiling that night at the Lexington Scrabble Club's regular Thursday session.

Here's the amazing thing: Cresta and Yorra weren't experts. Cresta at the time had played in just three tournaments and had a rating of 886. He had memorized hundreds of obscure words, like those ending in WOOD or starting with OVEN, by reading, writing down, and tape-recording pages from the OSPD. While working at carpentry jobs, he transcribed dictionary entries onto walls and sawhorses. But he hadn't even bothered to learn the threes. Yorra was rated 841 at the time. He was known for trying implausible words and hoping they turned out to be acceptable. "These are not guys who have low ratings because they haven't played in many tournaments," Mike Wolfberg of the Lexington club told me for an article I wrote about the game for the online magazine Slate. "They have low ratings because they aren't very good."

So how did it happen? Yorra opened with a 96-point bingo, JOUSTED. Cresta traded seven. Yorra bingoed again: LADYLIKE, to the E in JOUSTED. The first L landed in the second position in the triple column, and Cresta played the triple-triple FLATFISH for 239 points; he remembered the word from reading the F pages in the OSPD. Cresta traded on two of his next three turns; he held an I, an O, a Q, a U, and an X. "I wanted to get QUIXOTE down bad or QUIXOTIC," he told me. (He had been reading the J, Q, X, and Z words.) Yorra, meanwhile, bingoed again: SCAMsTER, slotting the R in another triple lane. Cresta saw the possibility of QUIXOTRY through the R. He traded two letters in hopes of drawing a T and a Y a 1-in-513 shot. Yorra left the spot open to play his fourth bingo, UNDERDOG. Down came QUIXOTRY. Cresta had made three plays for a total of 614 points. He burst through the 770 barrier four turns from the end.

Yet when the play-by-play was posted on CGP [the Crossword Games-Pro message board], it was easy to see that the players' lack of expertise had created the conditions for the record. When Yorra hung the R in the triple column, he could have played dEMOCRAT instead for an additional 29 points. An expert never would have held the Q for multiple turns while fishing for some improbable, once-in-a-lifetime play. He would have dumped it immediately, as Cresta could have. Even a lower-rated player might have done so in a tournament setting. The implication: Cresta wasn't terribly worried about whether he won or lost. "If they weren't really trying to win," an intermediate player named Mike Eldeiry wrote on CGP, "then can we really consider it our record? Fun, yeah. Neat, sure. Promotable, why not? But record, ummmmmmmm, I don't know." Eldeiry told me the game reminded him of a 600-foot batting practice home run. If experts always shot for the moon, he said, "I think they'd have cracked 850 by now. But they'd have lost a lot of games in the process."

Most CGP posters defended the record setters. Lexington club regulars said they just played differently than Joe (or Joel) Expert might have. The message: even someone who doesn't study high-probability word lists for hours on end can achieve greatness. "Nonexperts often make suboptimum plays," wrote Rod MacNeil, a top-hundred player who witnessed the game. "This time that resulted in some pretty eye-popping plays. But they found them." Another expert, John Van Pelt, wrote, "When faced with the possibility of playing a Q-X triple-triple, they see it as a good opportunity to advance their winning chances. So they go for it." Cresta, for his part, didn't understand the fuss. "It was really just one of those freak games," he said. "It's really not that big of a deal because I'm really not that great of a player. If you get two experts together, that game's not going to happen."

The consensus in the Scrabble community was that, as incredible as 830 was, Mark Landsberg's 770 should still be recognized as the tournament record. And it was until July 1, 2010, when Edward De Guzman, a twenty-nine-year-old expert from San Francisco (who, back pat, started playing competitively after reading this book), scored 771 in a tournament game in Reno. De Guzman played five bingos: EVINCED for 71 points, SALINITY for 94, GOATEES for 81, the triple-triple NEOLITHS for 158, and, on the game's final play, CARDAMoN for 74. He also scored 75 for LOQUAT and had three other 45-point-plus plays. He didn't play any phonies, got no extra turns from challenges, and exchanged just once. He didn't realize he had set the record until adding 10 points from his opponent's rack at the end.

A few days later, Mr. 770 himself posted to CGP. "Congratulations, Ed," Landsberg wrote. "Get yourself a 771 hat."

(For the full play-by-play of the Cresta-Yorra game, click here.)

Stay tuned later this week for another excerpt from Word Freak, in which Scrabble players argue over additions to their official dictionary.

Excerpted from Word Freak (10th Anniversary Edition) by Stefan Fatsis. Copyright © 2011 by Stefan Fatsis. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 13th 2011, 5:45 AM
Comment by: vicki S. (Marion, IA)
I'm tired of crocheting and have been looking for a new hobby. SCRABLE will do nicely, thank you! vicki in Iowa
Tuesday September 13th 2011, 8:11 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Experts, phooey! Can't stand it when an non-Elite out does them. 600 ft batting practice homerun? No way. This bench player came off the pines to hit a grand-slam in the bottom of the ninth to win the seventh game of the World Series. Could be the only homerun he ever hits. Once in a lifetime, but it still counts. There isn't any asterisk by his name in the record book indicating it didn't really count because he wasn't an all-star, Elite player.
Thursday October 6th 2011, 7:53 AM
Comment by: Aatish R.
A worthy mind game - scrabble

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Our second excerpt from the updated edition of "Word Freak" by Stefan Fatsis.
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