For better or worser the SCRABBLERS are massing in Chicago
Chicago — Do you feel comfortable using words like PLAIDED and FUTHARK? And as you look at the letters NERIAET do you automatically juggle them into TRAINEE or RETINAE? If so, you're probably a Scrabble (RG) player. There are about 33 million people in the United States and Canada who enjoy playing this crossword board game. The best of these players - 32 finalists ranging from a cabdriver to a bookkeeper - have survived three years of rigorous state and regional tournaments to play this week in the third North American Scrabble Players Championship. The stakes? A $5,000 top prize and a bronze trophy. The winner is to be announced this afternoon.
Most players here share a love of words and a well-disciplined effort to increase their game vocabularies. For instance, each player keeps close at hand a copy of Merriam-Webster's Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, which draws on five dictionaries. ''The OSPD,'' as players refer to it, lists 100,000 words acceptable on any Scrabble board - including such eyebrow raisers as ET (a contraction of eat) and WORSER.
Most finalists have memorized sizable sections of the OSPD, but techniques vary. Some players have compiled and meticulously memorized lists of four- or five-vowel words. ''I started typing the whole dictionary on a computer in my free time - it gave me good recall but I found I ran out of disc space pretty fast,'' says Carol Clark, a data processor from the Bronx, N.Y.
Several finalists have studied lists of all possible seven-letter words. Players start the game with a rack of seven letters. If a player uses all seven in one turn, he or she gets a ''Bingo'' for an extra 50 points.
Joe Edley of San Francisco, a bearded young man who is the reigning North American Scrabble champion, uses flashcards - letters are jumbled on one side and ordered on the other - to increase his stock of playable words.
''I've gone through the whole dictionary, but knowing what isn't in it is also important and a completely different skill,'' he says. ''There are a lot of almost-words similar to real words, and you have to know which words are phony.''
In fact, he says he won the last championship, in 1980, partly by using the word SALTANTS, which is an adjective without the S but no word at all with the S. ''It wasn't challenged,'' he explains.
''The really superior player will throw down words that are not words to challenge you,'' says finalist Steve Polatnick, a Miami lawyer. ''Anyone can play a real word, but I have to admire a person who plays a phony word and gets away with it - that's gamesmanship.'' But he admits that showing too much skepticism about an opponent's word can hurt a player. He says he was docked a turn for challenging perfectly acceptable words such as PLAIDED and LIEGEMAN.
''But if you're really sure a word is wrong, it pays to challenge,'' says Ron Tiekert, a statistician from New York City.
''You've got to be very careful that you don't play anything questionable here, because all these opponents really know their words. We may not be the 32 best but we're 32 very good players,'' says Jan Jarrell, a bookkeeper, wife, and mother from Wilmington, Del. She grew up in a large family (four brothers and a sister) that constantly played games - cards to chess - and encouraged competition. She says her husband doesn't play Scrabble at all but supports her growing interest in it.
Most Scrabble champions here are good spellers - some were child stars in spelling bees - but many readily admit they don't know the meaning of many words in their enlarged vocabularies. Most say they wouldn't use the words in daily conversation anyway.
''In this country the only one who can use unusual words and get away with it is William F. Buckley,'' says Mr. Polatnick.
Yet to Polatnick, who says eight to 10 hours of consecutive Scrabble-playing have flown by as if they were five minutes, Scrabble is not just an educational game. It's a sport.
''The thrill is matching wits at a high level,'' he says. He no longer does crossword puzzles because he now views them as relatively static. ''This game is a ruthless exposer of stuffed shirts and pretentiousness. You have to have some depth and pay attention to detail to do well. You have to be able to cut the mustard. It can be a very thrilling sport in a close game with one of the best players.''