My guest blogger today is Marty Gabriel. I know you’ll enjoy his thorough reporting and engaging commentary.
One of my New Year resolutions is to finally write about Czech Scrabble. Although it’s only been two months since I traveled to Prague, I intended to write an article within a week or two of returning to the United States. Unfortunately, a nagging illness, heavy snows, and frigid, pipe-bursting temperatures have inhibited me. But so has a growing sense of trepidation that I may not be up to the task, even when unencumbered by the consequences of poor health and extreme weather.
It’s not easy to write accurately about another culture. Journalists almost invariably misstate basic facts and concepts when they report about club or tournament Scrabble despite having some familiarity with the game, and I fear my status as a Scrabble expert of Czech descent may not be sufficient protection against a similar fate. If I stumble, I hope my new Czech friends will identify my errors and set the record straight.
Before heading to the Czech Republic I entered the words “Gabriel Prague” into Google to try to determine how common my last name might be there. My father’s brother had researched his family tree extensively and I’d been told my paternal grandfather was Bohemian, but my uncle died and I’ve lost contact with his children so I’m not privy to more details. My Google search was productive, though; I learned that the “Linked In” website has 8 pages of Gabriels who list Prague as their workplace. With 12 names to a page that’s about 100 Gabriels!
I didn’t try to contact any of the Linked In Gabriels, but I was hoping I would find one at the short Czech Scrabble tournament that was part of the Mind Sports International festival that included the English Scrabble world championship (officially called the Scrabble Champions Tournament in 2013), in which I’d finished in 45th place. I had achieved a goal of being among the top 50 players at the end of this prestigious event. However, this standing was insufficient for my inclusion in the four player playoff to determine the ultimate champion. My consolation was being free to watch the Czech tourney, which was being held concurrently.
The Czech tourney was played in a medium size room downstairs and across a courtyard from the part of the hotel where the world championship’s final four playoff participants were competing with an overflow crowd next door, packed into a large viewing room, watching every move on closed circuit television. The twenty Czech competitors, on the other hand, had more than enough space for their Scrabble games. The first person I met there was Petra Kuĉová, a friendly and very attractive young woman, who appeared to be directing the event very efficiently. Her ability to speak English fluently, though immensely important to me, was irrelevant for her job as “referee” (a title she preferred to director), because the tournament was played with a Czech dictionary as the word source.
One hundred tiles were used, as in English Scrabble. However, there are thirty-nine Czech letters due in part to the inclusion of an additional A, C, D, I, N, O, R, S, T, Y, and Z with various diacritical marks above them, described by Petra as either ĉźarkas (“commas”), krouźeks (“little circles”), or háĉeks (“little hooks”).The E and the U are even more complicated; there are three types of each. There is no W in Czech Scrabble and, ironically, no Q! The highest point value tiles include the X (10 pts.), Ď (8 pts.), Ť (7 pts.), Ó (7 pts.), Ň (6 pts.), F (5 pts.), G (5 pts.), and Ú (5 pts.).
Petra noted that the X and G were added to the Czech alphabet to accommodate foreign words which have made their way into the Czech language, such as BOX and TAG. I was surprised and pleased to see those on players’ boards amongst such gems as POŽIVATI, NEHVČIS, and JAKÚV (I think I may be able to guess the meaning of that one). I also noticed the word TAXY, which means TAXI in English, and learned from Petra that the Y in Czech often serves to pluralize words, as the S does in English.
As I traversed the room, I saw a number of long words and board configurations that suggested a rather high level of anagramming skill. Petra indicated that many of the words may have involved extensions, though, due to the fact that Czech is a highly inflected language. However, I saw at least two impressive plays that I knew were not.
The first was played by Petra’s muscular boyfriend, Jiří Matĕjček. It was ISOTOPY, a word I might have played and a word that was certainly a bingo! The second was played by the youngest player of the twenty who were participating, Vojta Vacek, who was near the end of his game against Petra’s father, Petr Kuča, when I arrived at their board.
Petr had introduced himself to me during the lunch break. He explained that he does not want to retire from his job as a nuclear safety engineer and that he learned English by listening to NPR radio. He is a leader in the Czech Scrabble community, responsible for providing playing equipment and maintaining the Czech Scrabble website among other things, and I’d later learn that his son is the highest rated Scrabble player in the country.
Vojta and Petr were playing on customary Czech equipment, which included a standard Scrabble bag, brightly colored Braille-proof plastic tiles and a flat board. To eliminate the difficulty turning such a board would entail, Czech players position the board sideways between them. Petr told me that he and other Czech players had seen the turntable style boards used in the world championship tourney, but rather than coveting them, they considered them “childish”. This, I would learn, is only one of several significant differences between Czech and English Scrabble.
Czech Scrabble clocks are about the size of salt or pepper shakers and they are programmed to beep loudly after two minutes have elapsed with smaller beeping sounds being emitted at regular intervals preceding this as warning signals. If a player takes longer than two minutes to complete a move, the turn is forfeited. The referee rings a bell to start each round of play and rings the bell again after 40 minutes. If players have not completed their game at that point they each can take up to two additional turns. This insures that no game will take longer than 48 minutes to complete. As far as I could tell, nobody exceeded their time allotments. Petr graciously brought an old clock to the hotel for me on his way to work the next day. I’m thinking of using it as a training aid. As I am prone to play at a turtle’s pace, the Czech player’s speediness momentarily had me questioning my ancestry. Then I remembered; I’m also half Greek.
Another major difference between Czech Scrabble and English Scrabble is that tile tracking is verboten in Czech Scrabble. Furthermore, players are not allowed to make notes of any kind on their score sheets, which they turn in to the referee after each round. Petra explained that tile tracking was allowed at one time but it was thought to be unfairly advantageous for very fast players.”There was heavy debate about the rules, but now it works quite well”, she said. I pointed out that tile tracking is necessary for play at the highest level, but Petr and Petra were steadfast in their disdain for the practice.
Martin Hruby, on the other hand, is in favor of more lenient rules in this regard. I was pleased to notice that Martin is another popular name in the Czech Republic, and this Martin was another friendly Czech player who spoke English well. Martin eagerly showed me his dictionary after overhearing me talk to Petra about Czech Scrabble study materials. His book was a rather dogeared volume without definitions, similar to the Official Tournament and Club Word List that is used at North American Scrabble clubs. An avid studier, Martin had identified especially useful words with red pen marks, but he bemoaned that he often could not use many of the longer words he had studied because of the lack of flexibility that’s a consequence of having 39 discrete tiles in a set of 100 and the relative paucity of two letter words in the Czech language for overlaps.
Nonetheless, Martin indicated that the top Czech players are able to average about one bingo per game. There are about 12-16 tourneys each year in the Czech Republic, mostly in and around Prague, and there is a qualification system that determines which 32 players will vie for the national championship, an eleven game event held in the fall. Martin has not won the national championship yet, but he did win a tournament that had 120 players and was the largest Scrabble tourney ever held in the Czech Republic!
Martin said he didn’t participate in the qualifying tourney to determine the two Czech Republic representatives at the 2013 English Scrabble world championship because “I knew I’d get killed”. Other top Czech players felt similarly, which enabled a woman who had played for years without even qualifying for the Czech national championship event to qualify. She had an English speaking spouse, but that didn’t prepare her nearly well enough for the world championship event; she went 0-31 in the English Scrabble Champions Tournament, losing by more than 200 points per game. But she didn’t quit!
I told Martin I’d like to play a game of Czech Scrabble with him, if he’d allow me to use his dictionary during play and have free challenges, but, unfortunately, after the Czech tourney he only had time to watch the conclusion of the World English Scrabble championship playoff with me before hustling off prepare to join his wife and young son in the Philippines. She returned to her homeland to have their baby recently because the hospital costs can be exorbitant for naturalized citizens in the Czech Republic.
The Czech tourney I was observing was being held a few weeks after the Czech national championship tourney, so attendance was atypically low, less than half the usual size of 40-50 entrants. But it was typical in that there were no divisions. Players are paired randomly at the start of Czech tourneys and subsequently paired Swiss style, with players ranked according to a computation involving their wins, margin, and strength of schedule (determined by the number of games their opponents have won).
When I happened upon the game involving Petr, the distinguished club elder, and cherubic, nine year old Vojta, shortly after midday, I was struck by the contrast in the pairing. The game was nearly over and Vojta seemed quite happy. He had just played a two letter word, placing a J on a triple letter space in front of an I to make JI. I thought this was very good use of a “hot spot” until I remembered that the J is only a 2 point tile in Czech Scrabble. Petr’s thick beard made his expression harder to discern, but he seemed more subdued and serious. “I hope he’s not beating the lad too badly,” I thought, as he made his move. I needn’t have worried; Vojta quickly emptied his rack to form a bingo, VYHRÁLA, down a triple-word lane, using the two blanks properly to make the R and A, and hooking the Á onto JI, making ÁJI. The play was worth 85 points and the final score 396-250 in Vojta’s favor! The boy had played superbly and won! (Ironically his bingo means “she has won”.) I was stunned as, I suspect, was Petr!
Vojta’s parents were also playing in the tourney and they were certainly quite proud of their son. His mother, Jana, said that Vojta “loves playing Scrabble” and that he plays in a twelve team Scrabble league in weekly matches against adults, winning about a third of his games. Jana has won a couple of Scrabble tourneys and her husband, another Martin, has won more than half a dozen; evidently this apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Perhaps Vojta will become a champion of champions someday!
Petra told me the first Czech national champion was an amazing fourteen year old girl. Imagine the joyous cries of her supporters; “VYHRÁLA!”; “VYHRÁLA!”