Interview with a Scrabble Expert

Today I am interviewing Marty Gabriel, who is also my husband.

What are your favorite words?

I’ve noticed a partiality towards words that start with B and also contain a U. Shortly after I’d studied all of the acceptable 7 and 8 letter words, I played BOUGHPOT and BUDDLEIA in tourneys, drawing an unsuccessful challenge each time. I also took great delight in playing BUSHPIG recently and I’d love to play BUSHTIT someday; I really enjoy just saying that word!

My family nicknamed me “Butch” when I was just a baby and my immediate family and my relatives still address me by that nickname, though my lovely wife’s pet name for me is Zebu. Interestingly, the nicknames have one thing in common – yeah, a B and a U.

Tell us about the vinegar.

My vinegar addiction became public when Scott Petersen filmed a segment of Scrabylon, his award winning documentary, at the 2002 National Scrabble Championship in San Diego during which I swigged vinegar straight from the bottle and touted its power to facilitate my playing ability and freak out my opponents.  For some reason I’ve always craved the stuff; I used to eat mustard sandwiches and ring boloney saturated with a strong vinegar solution as a child. I’ve been dubbed “Vinegar Man” at Subway because of the copious amount of vinegar I get on my sandwich. I instruct new workers, “Squeeze the bottle HARD for ten to fifteen seconds. I’ll tell you when to stop.” FYI, I’m a red wine vinegar guy.

Do you consider yourself more or less competitive than Bobby Knight?

Interesting comparison; I guess I should feel thankful that Attila the Hun did not come to mind. Actually my father has been a huge Bobby Knight fan. They’re both from the “When I tell you to jump, you say ‘How high?’” school of thought. I’ve admired Knight’s preparation, attention to detail, determination, and success, but I became disenchanted after reading A Season on the Brink and by some of his subsequent misbehavior and arrogance. I’d like to think I share more of his positive traits than his negative ones. I like to play games where score is kept. And I like to know my statistics and my ranking, either officially or unofficially. I enjoy competing to try to achieve goals I’ve set for myself. One of my favorite competitions is playing “speed pool” on my 8 and a half foot Olhausen table. It’s just me against the clock. I enjoy trying to improve on my personal records for average time, running the table, games without scratches, etc., etc. Club and tourney Scrabble or a game versus my spouse involve complex, anxiety-inducing social interactions, as do tennis, bowling, writing and many of my other activities. Yet I certainly relish being in the arena. And I can be very assertive and appropriately aggressive while competing

Why did it take you so long to marry your lovely spouse? Is this slowness evident in other areas of your life?

Emotional intimacy and emotional commitment were scary things for me for a long, long time. Much of this was probably due to the way I was raised, but my maternal grandfather waited until he was in his late forties to get married and start a family. He was of Spartan heritage and had a series of unbelievable adventures before settling down. I think I identified with him quite a bit.

Of course, I am slow to do all sorts of things, so perhaps this is just my nature. I eat slowly, I read slowly, I play Scrabble slowly. I am habitually a double-checker, often a triple-checker, and sometimes a quadruple-checker. A decision as important as getting married was not one that I would allow myself to be pressured or rushed into making. I ended up coming to it as I’ve always entered a body of water, be it pool, sea, or ocean – one step at a time…slowly…slowly.

What top-ranked Scrabble player have you beaten the most often?

I’ve beaten most of the players who have won the World Scrabble Championship and I’ve beaten most of the players who have won the North American Scrabble Championship, which probably shows that I’ve been playing competitively for a rather long time as much as anything. But the player I’ve beaten the most has to be Brian Cappelletto, who has won both of those titles. I was blessed to win my first three games against Brian at a Chicago area club in 1998, and we became friends and played regular sessions after that. I think he won something like 23 of the first 25 games we played outside of the club, and he went on to win the NSC, which was held in Chicago later that year. I also was his practice partner leading up to the WSC that he won in Las Vegas in 2001. I like to think that I helped him be well prepared for those events – probably helped build up his confidence if nothing else :) Brian is a very idealistic guy and a very good sport and I was really fortunate to have such a great mentor and Scrabble role model. In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to win 3 of 7 games against Nigel Richards, the best player ever.

Who’s your Scrabble daddy? (And for those of us not in the know, what is a Scrabble daddy?)

One’s Scrabble daddy is the player to whom one has lost the most rating points. In my case, Sam Kantimathi has that distinction, which seems wrong on multiple levels. Perhaps my problem is that I allow myself to be distracted by his giant score sheet, which some contend could shelter a small family. Or perhaps I am stunned by the array of colored markers he keeps at his disposal. Or maybe it’s the ubiquitousness of his name and web address on the Scrabble equipment spread all over the table. Or wait, maybe that’s really the reason; we almost always use HIS equipment.

Do you ever anagram when you’re making love to your wife? Be honest, now.

I cannot recall, Senator, uh, Daiva. When the endorphins start hoppin’ I lose sense of space and time and drift off into a Fantasia-like wonderland. Such bliss clouds my short-term memory.

Do you have favorite anagrams?

One of the first threesomes I ever encountered (Oh, come on, pull your head out of the covers!) was INCLUDES/UNSLICED/NUCLIDES. I liked the way the words made a coherent expression when placed in verb/adjective/noun order. I learned early on that it was useful to learn all of the anagrams of a word as soon as you learn the word, and I’ve always endeavored to make coherent combinations, which facilitates memory and recall. (Learning definitions helps as well.)




The Big Dic Versus the Small Dic

I have a lot to say about the National Scrabble Championship held in Orlando, Florida a few weeks ago, but I’ve forgotten most of it. My memory is a sieve. I should have written something earlier but school got in the way–the first week is always time consuming and anxiety provoking. Damned job.  I did write an article about The Scrabble Scandal, which should be published in the wonderful online journal The Rumpus later this week. I’ll post the link when it appears.

Briefly—Marty did better than expected playing in the Collins division. He came in fourth! He remembers every word he played in each one of his 32 games.

I did better than expected playing in Division 3.  I barely remember whom I played, much less any words.

I worked hard on my sportsmanship. I didn’t glare at my opponents or groan—groaning is no longer officially allowed. I did whimper a bit. As my friend Melissa Routzahn points out, there’s nothing in the rules about whimpering. And I put an ancient Lithuanian curse on several of my opponents. Other than whimpering and curse-placing I behaved decently.

Nigel won the championship. Nigel pretty much always wins the championship. That’s why he’s no longer Nigel Richards, but just Nigel. Nigel is the Oprah of Scrabble.

I did write something while in Florida, but I forgot to post it. It’s about the big dic and the small dic. Here it is:

We are in a cheery and well-equipped vacation rental in Orlando. My husband has been studying the big dic all day. Since I play with the small dic, that’s what I’ve been studying. Oh, come on, what did you think I meant? Dic is not an acceptable word, either in the big dictionary or the small dictionary. The big dictionary is the Collins dictionary, used in Scrabble play in England, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nigeria—in all of the countries of the Scrabble playing world except for Canada, the United States, Israel, and, surprisingly, Thailand, which play with the small dic—the North American 2006 Official Tournament and Club Word List, the 2nd edition, often referred to as either the OWL or the TWL, short for The Word List.  (There is also a version used for school and family play that omits offensive words.)

Marty calls the Collins dictionary the world dictionary: “The Collins has fifty percent more words than the TWL.”

He is always telling me things like “Here’s an interesting word that’s only good in Collins. I won’t tell you what it is, though. I don’t want you to play it accidently and have it challenged off the board.”

Words make their way into Collins much more quickly than they do into the TWL because the Collins is already a dictionary much like Merriam-Webster’s, while the TWL is compiled using four major college-level dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster. The problem is that the National Scrabble Player’s Association dictionary committee does not update the Scrabble lexicon on a yearly basis. In fact, the last time the TWL was amended was in 2006.  This means that internet, texting, emo, and unibrow are unacceptable in the small dic, but okay in the big one.  Some words, inexplicably, have never been okay, such as feedings and clit.  (Come on, TWL dictionary people—every new mother in the United States knows about feedings and every adolescent boy knows about clits.)

I forgot to mention that a modified Collins is also used on the planet AEIOU, whose inhabitants speak a language completely bereft of consonants. Collins has the following words: ou (an adult human male), euouae (which takes an s and means a Gregorian cadence), and euoi (an interjection expressing Bacchic frenzy).  This in addition to ae, ai, oe, and oi, which are acceptable in the small dic.

This is the first time in the history of the National Scrabble Tournament that there has been a Collins division.  A lot of the top players have moved over to Collins, though Division One has a much bigger prize pool and, arguably, more prestige: the winner gets to sashay down a runway with a crown and a bouquet of roses as thousands cheer on.

The winner may also have the chance to be interviewed on some television show or other hosted by that intellectual powerhouse, Katie Couric.

Why do some players in the United States prefer the big dic? For one thing, there are more words to learn, and if there’s anything top Scrabble players love it’s learning more words. Strategy is different as well, more complex, I think. Games played using Collins are usually higher scoring, not only because of the larger dictionary, but also because of the rules for challenging words, which I won’t go into here but which you can find at the following wiki: (Wiki is good in the big dic, but not in the small dic.)

Once when I was playing a Scrabble game at the Champaign club, which meets at Barnes and Noble, a disheveled and wild-eyed young man approached to look at the board.

“I once played a word for 963 points,” he said.

He was either crazy or playing Collins.

Side note: Marty won fourth place in the Collins division at the Nationals. His prize: a Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.


 The following short memoir appeared in the literary journal Pank this past winter.  To find out more about this cutting-edge magazine, featured in Poets and Writers, go to


Couples should never go to bed angry with each other.

There are times I’m so angry I lie in bed next to my husband, my body warped with rage, and think of clever, hurtful things to say. There are times he’s so angry he pushes me away when I try to apologize. This makes me even angrier. I start throwing pillows or I turn the radio on full blast and start dancing on the mattress, novelty dances from the Sixties and Seventies—the Hitchhike, the Monkey, the YMCA.

“You’re going to break the bed,” he yells.

Sometimes he starts laughing and pulls me down by a leg and I know he’s not angry anymore.


Couples should never threaten divorce in the heat of an emotional moment.

“I will divorce you,” I tell my husband when he asks me to turn down the television because he’s on the phone. He starts yelling. I tell him to use the cell. He swears. I run to the phone. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” I spell into the receiver, especially when I know someone important is on the other line. To his credit, my husband never says he will divorce me, even when he finds crumbs on the bed or unwashed coffee cups lined up on a shelf behind a row of canned tomatoes like soldiers in some guerilla kitchen war.


A shared sense of humor is important to a happy marriage.

I love sophisticated British humor.

My husband prefers puns.

“A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it,” he’ll say. Or, “The best way to communicate with fish is to drop them a line.”

I ignore his puns. I don’t want to encourage him. This makes him angry. “I should at least get a groan. Or a courtesy laugh.”

We argue about the concept of the courtesy laugh.

“You give your friends a courtesy laugh when they tell jokes that aren’t funny,” he claims.

“My friends don’t tell jokes. They’re naturally funny.”

I feel bad when I say things like this. Luckily, I know what makes my husband happy. A game of Scrabble. My husband is a Scrabble genius; give him a seven letter word like PRESENT and he’ll come up with its anagrams in seconds: PENSTER, SERPENT, REPENTS. He comes up with little stories to teach me the anagrams: “Think of the first chapter of the Bible. The snake, or the SERPENT REPENTS because the Old Testament writer, the PENSTER, is there. He’s PRESENT.”

“Except in the Bible the serpent doesn’t repent. In fact, he’s responsible for the downfall of man.”

“Well, maybe if there’d been a better penster present…..”

When we play Scrabble, my husband usually wins. I try to distract him with small talk and, sometimes, puns: “How do you like my rack?” I say, pointing simultaneously to my breasts and my Scrabble tiles. This makes him angry, almost as angry as when I place one of the tiles on the board upside down “accidentally.”

He lugs around a Scrabble board the way some men carry condoms. “You never know when you’ll get lucky,” he says.


Married couples respect each other’s differences.

“You should read more high-quality literature,” I tell my husband.

“I read the newspaper.”

“Newspapers don’t count.”

“You’re a snob,” he says.

“Why won’t you let yourself be moved by the power of the word?”

“I am moved by the power of the word,” he says. “I play Scrabble. And I anagram.”

“Some couples read aloud to each other before going to bed,” I moped one time.

He came to bed that evening with a book from which he read in a slow, dramatic tone:

“With a long wood and playing with water to the right, most players will tend to keep the shot left. Subconsciously they’ll turn on the shot to keep it from going into the water. You have to work against what your subconscious wants to do with the ball.”

He paused,  pleased with himself.

“My subconscious,” I answered, “wants to take the ball and squeeze it really really hard.”


Jealousy destroys relationships, signifying insecurity and lack of trust.

I sometimes dream that my husband is with another woman, someone younger and thinner and more athletic. Someone who appreciates his puns. I wake up angry and worried. I nudge my husband from his peaceful sleep.

“What is it?” he asks.

“I dreamt you were cheating on me,” I say. Sometimes I smack him on the shoulder.

“I can’t help what you dream,” he says, annoyed.

I tell him my theory: one person’s state of mind while sleeping—his thoughts and desires–can permeate another’s dreams: “Like a bird flitting from a nest to a favorite tree.”

“You’re crazy,” he says.

I describe the woman, some amalgam of who I think I should be, some nonexistent woman neither of us knows.

“You dream about Paul Konerko,” my husband counters.

In my dreams, the White Sox first baseman tells me he desires as his life’s companion not his young, slim, sane wife, but an overweight, angry, menopausal woman. The dreams always end with his wife busting in on us, shocked not so much that Pauly is in bed with another woman, but that the woman happens to be me.


Couples should not complain about each other’s personal quirks.

“You’re the only woman I know who gets a headache after sex,” my husband says.

“It’s a migraine.”

“Are you a migraine imaginer?”


“It’s an anagram. Migraine. Imaginer.  You know, like penster present.”

“Do you anagram when we make love?”

He averts his eyes.

“Tell me,” I say slowly, my voice rising. “Do. You. Anagram. When. We’re.  Making. Love.”

He looks down at his feet.

“Almost never.”

I called him an overidle evildoer and start throwing pillows and dancing on the mattress.

“You’re going to break the bed,” he yells.

He starts laughing and then I start laughing and very soon neither of us is angry anymore.






Preparing for the Nationals

The 2012 National Scrabble Championship begins on August 11th in Orlando, Florida. This is what I’ve been doing to prepare myself for the grueling four and a half day marathon:

  1. Practicing tai chi. I’ve never done tai chi before, but I’ve seen pictures and all you have to do is contort your body into these funny positions. Example: stick your hand out to your side while you slowly raise your leg. My balance isn’t very good, so I’ve been practicing while lying down in bed. Note: It’s important to look peaceful when engaged in this ancient Chinese martial art.
  2. Getting together a Scrabble prayer circle. I pray, but I’m not very good at it, so one day I said to myself, “Why not get other people to do it for me?”  I’ve heard friends of sick people say “Time to start a prayer circle.” If I’m having a rough day at the Nationals, I will simple tweet my followers and tell them “Time to start a prayer circle.”
  3. Stocking up on essential oils.  A new study shows that the smell of jasmine induces a sense of calm that can improve athletic performance. This particular study was done on baseball players.  I can’t imagine CC Sabathia soaked in the sweet smelling substance, but I think the Cubs are quite fond of it. Another good essential oil is grapefruit, which is supposed to help with concentration.  I plan on dousing myself with jasmine and grapefruit oil before every Scrabble game. Even if the oils don’t make me calm and focused, their smell may very well nauseate my opponents.  I should check with the official tournament rules, though, in case there’s something that prohibits making opponents nauseous.
  4. Reading the official tournament rules. (See above, re nausea.) My husband, who is an official Scrabble club director, says there are new rules involving tournament play. Bitching aloud about bad luck was never permitted, though you can bitch to yourself in your thoughts, I guess. But now, groaning is not allowed. Or is it moaning? Or is it groaning and moaning? This presents a problem, as I am both a groaner and a moaner, though probably more of a groaner.
  5. Playing Quackle.  I look at the Generate Choices option and choose the best play suggested by the Championship Player. This way I win a lot and feel good about beating the computer. I also challenge Facebook friends who’ve never played Scrabble to FB Scrabble. This way I win ALL THE TIME! I don’t know if my game has improved, but my Scrabble self-esteem is at an all-time high.
  6. Thinking of changing my name to something dramatic and quirky to throw off my opponents. Winter ZXQKJ seemed like a good choice until someone told me that’s already taken. But NOT Summer AEIOU  As of now, I’m Summer AEIOU.
  7. Looking for the gold medal that my husband received in appreciation for being the head judge at the Special Olympics for the Chicago public schools. He wore the medal to his first Scrabble tournament years ago, held in Milwaukee around the time of the Olympic trials in that region. When opponents asked about the medal, Marty responded “I’d rather not talk about it right now.” He won second place in the intermediate division; one of his opponents later said to him, “You know what? A lot of us think you’re a jerk because you won’t talk about your medal.
  8. Practicing telling people “I’d rather not talk about it right now.”   Also thinking of getting a pair of Mickey Mouse ears to go with the medal. I’ll be in Orlando, so why not? Maybe a Goofy suit would be better…..
  9. Checking with the Official Tournament Rules to see if there’s anything about wearing costumes.
  10. Studying.  I plan on going over all of my two letter words so I don’t keep playing DA and TE.  I also plan on memorizing every single Q word in the Scrabble dictionary. I believe it is this kind of focused study that will help me do well in the Nationals.

Feel free to share these tips, unless, of course, you’re playing in my division