Interview with Geoff Thevenot

Geoff Thevenot burst onto the Scrabble scene in 2003. After a mere three years of playing he found himself competing for first place in the United States Scrabble Open championship in Phoenix, Arizona. As of this writing, Geoff is the sixth highest rated active player using the Collins (international Scrabble) dictionary in the United States. He has represented the US in the last three World Scrabble Championships.  Geoff is an excellent speller; he’s won the Austin Chronicle spelling bee numerous times.  He is an accomplished musician, a knowledgeable and insightful sports fan, and a very good writer. You can find his blog, Scrambled and Unscrambled, at http://scrambledandunscrambled.blogspot.com/.

Can you tell us how you came to play Scrabble?

Geoff: I’m a member of the Word Freak generation. I read the book in 2002 and realized, oh yeah, I *have* to do this – don’t think I had much choice in the matter. I’d played only a little bit of Scrabble before then, but I did spelling bees as a kid and had played some word games online and enjoyed them, so it’s easy to see why competitive Scrabble would have appealed to me. I was living in the Oklahoma City area at the time – I sent a message to the email address for a club there, but I might have had the wrong address as I got no reply. So I found a cheap copy of the Hasbro Scrabble CD-ROM and started playing the computer. I’d also read about the word study program LeXpert in Word Freak, so I downloaded that and got to work. I would say I studied for about six months before I came to a Scrabble club for the first time.

I was considering moving to Austin at the time, as there was less and less keeping me in OKC and I had family in Austin. That timetable was shortened considerably by a tornado – yes, really – that hit the town where I was living in May 2003. I and my stuff were unharmed, but my apartment complex was condemned afterward, so I ended up staying in a nearby hotel as a guest of FEMA with all my earthly possessions jammed into the room. At that point, I figured I might as well just move. Scrabble did play a part in the decision – I’d researched the Austin club and knew I’d start playing there whenever I arrived. In June, I moved down here and started playing in club, and my first tournament was in Houston over Labor Day weekend. That was about ten years ago, and I’m still going at it.

One of the things you’re known for is your phenomenal word knowledge. Are you just naturally gifted when it comes to recall/recognition/spelling or do you study a lot? Or both?

Geoff: It’s both. Remembering how words are spelled has always come naturally to me; part of that is rote memory, but a lot of it is being able to recognize and (maybe) intuit linguistic patterns too. So I definitely had a head start when I got to Scrabble, but especially in the early years I was studying a lot as well. A big motivator early on was the sheer size of the task. When I read in Word Freak that there were players who knew a hundred thousand words or more, well, that sort of mountainous, crazy quest was just what I was looking for at the time, for many reasons, and doing it less than fully wouldn’t have been appealing. Better get started now, because this might take a while!

I don’t study as much now as I did then, and when I do it’s often goofy, low-utility words that are just fun to learn and unscramble. Just kind of swimming around the ocean of words, picking up whatever I might stumble on. A certain amount of review is needed from time to time, of course, but reviewing familiar words is much less fun to me than learning less familiar ones. But yes, I still try to do at least some anagramming every day. By now, it’s too ingrained a habit not to.

I know this may sound trite, but do you have favorite words? Favorite anagrams?

Hmm, well…I appreciate the aesthetics of words quite a bit, even apart from their dictionary definitions (though I do know a lot of those) – the patterns and linguistic history and, I don’t know, flavor of different words. Light-sounding words, dark-sounding ones, Saxon ones, Latin ones, Asian ones, African ones, pretty ones, ugly ones, old ones, new ones, formalities, slang, profanity, you name it. Which is a roundabout way of saying I don’t have favorites in quite that sense, because there are so many astonishing words out there, each in their own way, that it would be impossible to pick from them. But I’ll name ten off the top of my head I like the flavor of: CUBEB, YRNEH#, JYMOLD#, IXODID, KILLCOW#, EPENDYMA, SELDSEEN#, BAHUVRIHI, CHAUDFROID#, KWASHIORKOR. (Safe to say I haven’t played the last three on that list in a game.)

NOTE: The # after a word signifies that it’s a Collins (international) word. DM

Why do you prefer to play with the Collins dictionary?

The biggest broad reason is that I’d like to see us join the rest of the world – there are so many vibrant scenes outside North America, filled with players just like us, and yet there’s this wall and it doesn’t make sense to me. But more selfishly, yes, there are many reasons I like Collins better. I’d say that everything in TWL Scrabble that attracted me to the game is even more present in Collins. Scrabble as played in TWL tournaments is much more dynamic and volatile than Scrabble at the kitchen table; Collins ratchets that up yet another notch or two. The strangeness of many of the Collins words is a feature, not a bug – when I started playing Scrabble, I noticed how many little bits of interesting information and trivia I was picking up just by reading the OSPD at lunchtime. Collins takes that experience to new heights as well, particularly in learning about English usage in other countries and other times in history.

Having played a whole lot of both TWL and Collins, I can vouch that there’s still plenty of strategic interest in Collins, counter to what some people here have asserted – I don’t approach the two games any differently. You think about all the same things in either one. It’s just that in Collins, you tend to have more options, and so does your opponent. The trucks get stuck in the mud a little less often; it’s a matter of taste, but games with the sort of flow I enjoy best tend to happen more often in Collins. TWL is a fine game, I still play it sometimes, and if it was the only game on offer, I’d have been fully content – but I want it all!

Lastly, getting to travel and meet and play excellent players from around the world has been very rewarding. And I wouldn’t have had those opportunities if I hadn’t cracked open the big book.

What do you remember from your first tournament?

Being very excited, mostly. Tons of nervous energy, even for me (and I’m like that to begin with). I won my first six games, but lost my next two, which meant that I had to play the division leader, who was 8-0, the last three games and win them all. I got the first two, but…here’s where it gets funny. As a tournament virgin, I did not know the proper procedure for taking a restroom break during a game. And sure enough, early in the final game, the urge arrived. I ended up making a bad strategic play late in the game, allowing my opponent to bingo and win. I’m not sure I can blame it on being doubled over with my eyes watering at the time – I was very new to the game and could well have made such a mistake fully relieved – but I’d guess it didn’t help. Oh well, second place. I was riding home with Keith Smith, and early on he asked me whether I was satisfied with my result, to which I replied “hell no”. But not in the sense of being upset or anything like that; I’d enjoyed the weekend intensely and just wanted to do a whole lot more of it and get better at it.

If you could play Scrabble with any person in the world, living or dead, who would be your choice and why?

Some intoxicating woman I have a hopeless crush on who can, on top of these other virtues, give me a good game. I’ll play piano for her during the breaks. There would be wine and everything. Yes, theoretically that could go really well. Er, theoretically. I haven’t simmed it.

Or maybe Nigel Richards, so he can teach me how to play…or Alfred Butts, so I can see his reaction upon looking at a completed Collins board.

In addition to being a top-ranked Scrabble player, you’re also an accomplished musician. Tell us a little about the kind of music you play.

Geoff: Sure! Some quick background: I started playing piano as a kid, then got a guitar at 15 and learned that, picked up bass later…I played in bands with many different styles for many years (although, oddly, I moved to Austin, Live Music Capital of the World, and haven’t joined a band since – more on that in a minute). Fast forwarding to now, I’ve got a modest home studio and over the last couple of years I’ve been making demos of a lot of my original songs. I play all the instruments and sing. The resulting one-man band is called Trembles of Fortune. The style is pretty retro, though it’s not necessarily an attempt to do so – that’s just what I tend to come up with. Some people have said it sounds like Steely Dan in spots (which is a big influence, true). Rock with jazz, soul and progressive influences, maybe? You can hear for yourself: I have a YouTube channel called tremblesoffortune, and the last two years of demos plus some older ones from the 90’s are there. My future plans are to keep refining the songs I have, sharpening my skills, writing more…

Are you any relation to Melchisédech Thevenot, the French scientist, inventor, cartographer, and author of the 1696 bestseller The Art of Swimming? More importantly, tell us again how you pronounce Thevenot.

Geoff: Second question first, it’s TEH-vuh-no. Silent H, silent final T, first E is short. I surely am related to Melchisedech, as there aren’t that many of us, though I don’t know exactly how. If I remember right, he invented the bubble level. That’s a pretty big deal! That guy rocked.

You follow sports. With baseball season around the corner, do you have any predictions concerning AL and NL division contenders?

Geoff: I’d have to say the AL East is the most interesting division, which in recent years it usually hasn’t been – you could just about make a case for the five teams finishing in any order. The Angels with Trout/Pujols/Hamilton could sure be scary in the West…the Central, I don’t know – Detroit again? Probably. Maybe the White Sox. In the NL, I’d love to see Washington pull it off, and I think they’ll at least win their division. Dodgers vs. Giants should be a heck of a storyline throughout the year. I’m always hesitant to pick repeat division winners, but the Reds seem flat-out better than their peers…okay, I’ll pick Tampa Bay over the Dodgers in six. Which means it’ll surely be someone else.

If someone wrote a biography about you, what might the title to be?

Hope I Panic In The Right Direction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrabble Poem by Mathematician Mike Keith

Jane McGonigal, in her fascinating book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Books), makes explicit what game players know implicitly: it is the obstacles in a game that make it interesting. The more obstacles, the bigger the challenge, the greater the excitement (one reason there will never be a Candy Land tournament.) Think of the obstacles as restrictions: in Scrabble we’re restricted to seven tiles. We’re also restricted by the word our opponent has played, etc.

Poetry, especially poetry written in traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, also works under a set of restrictions, specifically rhyme scheme and stanza length. For example, sonnets have fourteen lines, villanelles have five tercets followed by a quatrain, etc.  I was surfing the web for Scrabble poems and came upon Mike Keith’s wonderful poem. It’s kind of a double-restriction poem. Keith restricts himself to iambic pentameter and an ABA rhyme scheme. More interestingly, he restricts himself to using one set of Scrabble tiles for each stanza of the poem.

Keith is a mathematician but also, I think, a very good poet. Check out his website: http://www.cadaeic.net/index.html.  The poem below reminds me of something Pulitzer Prize winning poet John Ashbery might have written (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/238), if Ashbery wrote in iambic pentameter using an ABA rhyme scheme.

 

Here’s the poem in normal text with punctuation.  You can see that it’s written in tercets. The three-line stanza isn’t evident in the Scrabble tile poem above because the page would be too wide—tiles take up more space than type!

Through sentient, gauzy flame I view life’s dread,
quixotic, partial joke. We’re vapour-born,
by logic and emotion seen as dead.

Plain cording weds great luxury ornate,
while moon-beams rise to die in Jove’s quick day;
I navigate the puzzle-board of fate.

Wait! Squeeze one hundred labels into jibes,
grip clay and ink to form your topic – rage;
await the vexing mandate of our lives.

I rush on, firm, to raid my aged tools,
but yet I touch an eerie, vain, blank piece,
as oxide grown among life’s quartz-paved jewels.

Once zealous Bartlebooth, a timid knave,
portrayed grief’s calm upon a jigsaw round;
yet now he lies, fixed quiet in his grave.

Just so we daily beam our pain-vexed soul
with fiery craze to aim large, broken core
and quest in vain to find the gaping hole.

Below you’ll find the poet’s notes about the poem:

Who is “Bartlebooth”, you might ask? Ah, this strikes at the very core of the poem. Bartlebooth is the jigsaw-puzzling main character of Georges Perec’s massive constrained novel “La Vie mode d’emploi” (“Life A User’s Manual”). Perec’s novel consists of 100 chapters with one blank (missing), modeled after a Paris apartment building with 100 rooms. The theme of missing things constantly reappears (e.g., Bartlebooth dies as the puzzle he is working on has a single piece-shaped hole.)

Scrabble® has 100 tiles with two blanks, an almost exact replica of the structure of Perec’s novel. Hence the desire to allude to “La Vie” in stanzas 4 (“blank piece”), 5 (Bartlebooth and his puzzles), and 6 (“gaping hole”). “Puzzle-board” of stanza two is also a reference – to the 10×10 knight’s tour involved in Perec’s work.

 

 

 

Greetings from Nerdville

Friends who know me from my most recent incarnation (I typed incarceration by mistake but quickly realized my mistake)—the last fifteen years of my life when I can safely call myself an adult—would probably characterize me as outgoing and outspoken. I blurt what’s on my mind; I tell strangers not to litter, my husband to pay attention to my important musings, and my students to shape up or ship out.

As a girl, however, I was shy, scared of the Italian girls in my neighborhood with their bouffant hairdos and smoldering cigarettes. Bad influences, my grandmother called them. I was fearful of some of the Lithuanian girls as well, the older ones who wore lipstick and knew the meaning of words like douchebag.

I imagine a postcard from my early grade school days—me with my hair in braids and my teeth begging for braces, pasting insect stamps into my Young Adventurer’s Stamp Collector’s Book.  In the background one can detect the faint outlines of a chess set.  Next to the chess set, in bold relief, stands a pile of books including Tell My Why (Sample question: How big is the universe?), Profiles in Courage, and an unabridged Lithuanian-English dictionary.

Greetings from Nerdville, the postcard says.

(Husband intrusion: “Do you know that nerd can also be spelled nurd?” But nerdy can only be spelled nerdy, not nurdy.”)

My nerdiness followed me into high school—I memorized the poetry of Longfellow for fun, stayed up nights reading Tolkien, and almost flunked out of gym—though it was leavened somewhat by participation in drama productions (high school drama productions, not my own—those came later) and occasional use of various illegal substances.

As I’m writing this I’m wondering what the difference is between nerd and geek. Are they interchangeable?  I vaguely remember hearing that geek is more positive than nerd.

When I first met my husband, we asked each other about our ethnic backgrounds.

“I’m half Greek,” Marty told me. What I heard, though, was “I’m half geek.”

“The other half of you must be jock,” I nodded wisely.

I sometimes think if I’d been born twenty years later I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time in school.  These days nerdiness is accepted, if not celebrated (though I suspect that young nerds still have a hard time of it, especially if most of their classmates are non-nerds.) The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular sitcoms on television.  Top celebrity nerds, according to popular entertainment blogs, include such attractive people as Natalie Portman, James Franco, Vigo Mortensen, and the Gyllenhaals. Students come to class wearing t-shirts with slogans like “Ich bin ein nerd,”  “Chaucer is my homeboy,” and “Cogito ergo sum.”  (There should be a comma after the cogito: Cogito, ergo sum. Many people labor under the false assumption that there are no commas in Latin, but this is true only of medieval Latin.  Fun fact: the comma as we know it was adapted from the virgule–a real word because it’s good in Scrabble—a little diagonal slash first used in the middle ages. I learned this from the Wikipedia site for comma,  which includes a little warning: “Not to be confused with coma.”  A lot of my students do confuse comma with coma. A few years ago a student wrote the following: “I was in a comma out of which I painfully emerged.” I was very tempted to respond, “I was once in a question mark and, let me tell you, that was no fun.”)

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this or how it relates to Scrabble, except that the game attracts a lot of nerdy people. Tournament Scrabble players are probably all nerds by definition, though some are nerdier than others. Quite a few are accomplished, attractive, sophisticated nerds. Melissa Routzahn, for example, is a curvaceous blue-eyed blonde who also happens to be an expert on cheese. Lisa Brown has shining hair down to her butt and a wonderful laugh and knows about a thousand languages. There are many more examples. Of course, there are also just plain ol’ weird nerds, mostly guys who won’t look you in the eye and wear high-water pants and short-sleeved shirts with pocket protectors, but I’ll save that topic for another time.