In ballroom B of Los Angeles' Universal City Hilton Hotel, David
Gibson looked down with no small concern at the little wooden rack
in front of him. He had the letters N-U-T-T-I-E-R, a slim lead and
a steely-eyed Princeton math whiz named Adam Logan staring across
the board at him. It was the kind of moment in which Scrabble
championships are won or lost.
``I needed a bingo,'' Gibson recalls, referring to a play that
uses all seven tiles and earns a 50-point bonus, ``but my only
move was to start with one of the letters that was already on the
board. It looked bad -- and then suddenly a mnemonic hit me. It
reminded me that N-U-T-T-I-E-R can be combined with any of the
consonants s, c, q, n, g and b. I looked down, and, lo and behold,
there was an n sitting out there. I was blessed. Because what's
nuttier and an n? Nutrient, of course.''
Nutrient, of course. But whether being blessed had anything to do
with Gibson's bingo, which helped him to go on to win the $60,000
1994 National Scrabble Championship last August, is something
else. Gibson, a bearded, soft- spoken 44-year-old math professor
at Spartanburg Methodist College in Spartanburg, S.C., is being
typically modest. Tournament Scrabble is played strictly
two-handed, and with a time clock. It is less like the game we all
played when it rained during our childhood vacations than it is
like championship chess -- or rather a combination of chess and
high-stakes poker with rules dreamed up by Lewis Carroll.
Scrabble experts speak of tile tracking, board development, rack
balance and the endgame, and they regularly plan half a dozen
moves ahead. Add to this the standard tournament schedule -- 27
games of Scrabble played over five days in a ballroom filled with
as many as 400 testy, tile-rattling aficionados impersonating
attendees at a seashell-sorters' convention -- and you get the
drift. Under such conditions Gibson's won-lost record of 23-4 at
the nationals was spectacular.
Since the Los Angeles tournament the new champion -- who sounds
like and may be as nice as the Gary Cooper character Longfellow
Deeds in the film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town -- has defied the experts
by placing second in a tournament held in Cocoa Beach, Fla., last
November and thereby retaining his No. 1 ranking. But the minor
miracle was that he ever became restless enough to try for the top
ranking at all. Last summer marked only the second time in
Gibson's life that he had been west of the Mississippi, and even
then it took last-minute prodding from his wife and Scrabble muse,
Nancy, to persuade him to make the trip.
More remarkably, until recently Gibson was an unknown in the
Scrabble world. Although he has played in the occasional
tournament since 1986, he prefers to spend up to three hours a day
studying the ``18,000 or so'' flash- cards Nancy has prepared for
him and inscribing mnemonics in his annotated Official Scrabble
Player's Dictionary. To keep himself match-sharp he depends on
weeklong, 120-game marathons at his home with a handful of other
top-level play- ers, particularly Bob Lipton, a retired croupier
from Vero Beach, Fla.
``Imagine there's a guy who plays tennis exclusively on his
backyard court and who decides to show up one day at Wimbledon,''
says John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the Nation- al
Scrabble Association. ``Then he wins. That's about what David's
If Gibson's relative anonymity was atypical for a ranking Scrabble
player, his math background wasn't. Because the game is as much
about probability and geometry as it is about words, a
disproportionate number of Scrabble experts aren't the literary
types you might expect but math and science teachers and students,
or comput- er programmers. It's arguable, in fact, whether top
Scrabble players even care about words. As one Division I
(top-level expert) player puts it: ``Words are a red herring.
Think of them as rules, not words. Scrabble is a game with 100,000
rules. We just learn the rules.''
Words or rules, they didn't come naturally to Gibson -- despite
the fact that his parents, who own an auto-parts locating company
in Charlotte, N.C., played Scrabble weekly when he was growing up.
``I was a slow reader, and the first time I took my SATs I scored
very high in the math and 430 in the English portion,'' he says.
``When I took my GREs after I graduated from Furman, same thing:
over the 90th percentile in math, 19th percentile in English.
``Then while I was teaching in Spartanburg, in 1985, I started
visiting my folks on the weekends, when I noticed my mom working
crossword puzzles. Being competitive, I figured I'd start working
them too. And one day it just happened; I was eager to know about
words. I started getting up two hours early just to read the whole
paper, even the fashion section, which I couldn't care less about.
About a year later I read an article about a lady in her 70's who
played tournament Scrabble, which I never even knew existed. I
called her up out of the blue, she ended up tutoring me, and as
though it was meant to be, one thing led to another.''
Where it led, of course, was to the entrancing loony bin that
Scrabble purists have inhabited since an unemployed architect
named Alfred M. Butts invented the game in 1931. There may be
pastimes as addictive, but it's hard to imagine another group of
obsessives who are as much fun to watch.
One of Gibson's most formidable tournament opponents these days is
an Orthodox Jew from Toronto named Zev Kaufman, who ingeniously
circumvents the Talmudic proscriptions that seem to prohibit
playing Scrabble on the Sabbath. To sidestep the rule against
writing, or ``the permanent placement of letters,'' Kaufman
eschews the snap-in deluxe Scrabble board on Saturdays for the old
recreational board we are all familiar with, on which tiles tend
to slide all over the place. To record his points, he has
tournament officials hire a Gentile.
Even Kaufman's dedication pales in comparison with that of another
group of Division I players Gibson has come up against recently: a
squadron of Thais who fly to major North American tournaments from
Bangkok, which itself hosts one of the largest tournaments in the
world -- in English. The Thai competitors can't speak the
language; they're just great Scrabble players. They've learned the
All this cosmopolitan intensity might have been expected to faze a
down-home Spartanburg boy. But the new champ is quickly
developing a reputation as a kind of affable gunslinger who
displays an uncanny coolness under fire -- and whose level of
preparation astonishes even his fellow mavens. At tournaments he
tends to pass up the recreational side games played by others well
into the early-morning hours and instead stays in his room, where
he eats trail mix he brings from home and receives long-distance
pep talks from Nancy. Although Gibson won't volunteer the
assessment himself, Scrabble aficionados say he has reached the
elite level of play previously restricted to the game's reigning
triumvirate: Joe Edley, the editor of the Scrabble News, from
Coram, N.Y., who has won the national championship twice and is
considered Scrabble's Bobby Fischer; Joel Wapnick, a Montreal
music professor who is the game's Greg Norman (twice in the past
three years he has been within a single game of winning a major
tournament, only to see victory slip away); and Mark Nyman, the
current world champion, a 25-year-old quiz-show producer from
Leeds, England, who has been successful in North America despite
having to contend with a difference of several hundred words
between the OSPD and the British Scrabble dictionary, the wordier
tome he uses at home.
``Edley never beats himself, Wapnick has tremendous word power,
and Nyman is simply brilliant,'' says Williams. ``Gibson, who you
have to put up there now, I would class as an incredibly dedicated
student of the game. After the tournament he actually asked me to
send him a box full of all the challenges that had been played,
just so he could study them. He reminds me of Pete Maravich with a
basketball; he just can't get enough of it.''
Pistol Pete, and again, Mr. Deeds. After beating his practice
partner, Lipton, to win the title, in the 25th game at Los
Angeles, Gibson was interviewed on TV and treated to the first
room-service meal of his life. Then, as discreetly as he could, he
asked Williams to distribute $10,000 ($7,500 after taxes) of his
$15,000 prize to the rest of the players who had participated in
``I kind of felt that it was more important that the other players
meet their expenses than for me to take home all the money,''
Gibson says. ``Plus I wanted to make a gesture to Milton Bradley,
the sponsor, who's done so much for us. I kept $5,000 to give to
Nancy for her mom, who has some medical expenses. We don't really
need anything else. Like I said before, we're blessed.''
So is the pastime with the little squares. Imagine Nick Faldo
giving away half his prize money; Shaquille O'Neal, half of his
salary. It's ironic that you have to watch a game of Scrabble to
find the combination that eludes us so often these days: a
champion and a sportsman.
Jay Teitel is a writer and game inventor -- Therapy, among others
-- living in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
COLOR PHOTO:JIM GUNDHanging around at home, Gibson stays match-sharp by playing weeklong, 120-game marathons. [view through glass tabletop of David Gibson standing above Scrabble letters]
COLOR PHOTO:TOM YOUNGEven on the Sabbath, Kaufman isn't at a loss for words.[Zev Kaufman playing Scrabble]