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Backstory: Of carpenters and Scrabble kings

By Cynthia AndersonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 2006


Michael Cresta is the reigning king of Scrabble, but you'll have to excuse him if he wears the crown a tad uneasily. Unassuming by nature – a carpenter from Saugus, Mass., who bowls on Tuesday nights and plays Scrabble on Thursdays – Mr. Cresta is, well, horrified by the attention that has ensued since that fateful game on Oct. 12 at the Lexington Scrabble Club during which he toppled three national records.

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Hence, he is not returning the many calls from the media or answering the phone. That task seems to have fallen to his wife, Dianna, who says, "Michael is just not that kind of guy." For that matter, Cresta didn't share the news with his own father, who found out almost a week after the fact. "Why didn't you tell me?" his dad asked, to which Cresta could only shrug.

Diffidence notwithstanding, Cresta receives an imperial welcome when he shows up on a recent evening at the club in suburban Boston, his first appearance since the win. "There he is!" shouts someone as Cresta – a compact, curly-haired man in jeans and leather sneakers – materializes in the doorway of the group's church-basement quarters.

Cresta is late for the meeting, having been stuck at work waiting for a tardy plumber who was supposed to help with a bathroom renovation. But nobody seems to mind. Instead, his club mates clap and cheer. Cresta reddens, looks at the floor. "It's really not that big of a deal," he tells the first person to approach and congratulate him. "But thank you very much."

According to the National Scrabble Association, Cresta set three records in that game. His individual total was 830 points, besting the previous North American high of 770 set in 1993. He and his partner, Wayne Yorra, together scored 1320, the most points ever achieved in a two-player game. Cresta also broke the record for points scored in a single turn, garnering 365 for the triple-triple QUIXOTRY. His other big play was FLATFISH, also a triple-triple, for 239.

If on that night a month ago Cresta was HOTHOTHOT at the table, he is less so on this evening. He sits across from Hilda Siegel, who is playing in Lexington while the Boston club to which she belongs is being relocated. The 15-by-15 square board is filling slowly, with respectable words like ZING, JOLLY, and QUIRE but nothing too remarkable. Cresta is a bit ahead.

Then Ms. Siegel "bingos," emptying her tray of seven tiles in a single play. The bingo boosts her score an additional 50 points, and she takes the lead. "Nice work," says Cresta, peering down at his own letters, mostly a mess of vowels.

Around Cresta and Siegel, 10 other games are in progress. An air of happy concentration fills the room. Other than the click of tiles being arranged in trays and the hushed tally of numbers, quiet prevails. Every so often, a pair of players rises from their chairs and hurries across the room to a laptop set up to settle challenged words. Chit-chat will come later, after the games are over or when people take a break for tea and cookies in the corner.

With the clock ticking, Cresta leans closer to the board. The skin around his nails is white from the grouting he did at work. He refuses to use certain words – profanity and "phonies," made-up words some players try to pass off as real. "Not ethical," he says. Finally he responds with OORIE, a low scorer that at least provides the chance to draw some consonants. He rummages around in the tile bag, extracts four pieces, and grins.

Siegel eyes him. "Be kind," she says.

Cresta keeps smiling, but in the end Siegel takes the game, 416 to 383.

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