Backstory: Of carpenters and Scrabble kings
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Scrabble was invented in 1931 by an out-of-work architect, Alfred Butts, who wanted to create a board game that combined skill and chance. To determine a letter's frequency (and inversely its "value"), Butts scrutinized the front page of The New York Times. He discovered that vowels appeared far more often than consonants, and that E was the most common letter. The least common (i.e. most valuable) letters were Q and Z. Over time, Butts refined his game, but struggled to find players. Scrabble's big break came in the early 1950s, when the president of Macy's discovered it while on vacation and ordered it for his store. Within a year, clerks couldn't keep the game in stock.Skip to next paragraph
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Cresta himself started playing in 1973, when he was 10. He continued to play casually as an adult, only joining the club in 2004. Since then, he has worked to sharpen his skills. "When I first came here, I thought I was good," he says. "I soon found out I wasn't."
While watching TV at night with Dianna, he often reads from the Scrabble dictionary. He's memorized many of the J, Q, X, and Z words, as well as most of the 100 two-letter words and a lot of the 1,000 three-letter ones. Describing his score-boosting tactics, Cresta lowers his voice. "Actually, I'm a bad speller," he says. "English was my worst subject." Then he brightens. "I do have a good memory."
Which brings up the matter of the cassettes he listens to at work. He records them himself, 45 minutes to a side, reading aloud from the dictionary. Recent tapes include words that begin with "out" and "over." Each word is read and then spelled. (Cresta avoids playing the tapes when a homeowner is around.)
Though intent on improving his game, Cresta is less serious about competition. He and Mr. Yorra joke about a previous champion who wears a cap inscribed with his winning score and, this cracks them up, drives a car with the score on his license plate. Cresta looks at a club member hunched over a Scrabble board across the room. "Look at that frown," he says. "I mean, come on. This is supposed to be fun."
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At the Lexington club, where many members have been playing seriously for more than a decade, Cresta's position as a hobbyist and relative beginner is not news. The following warning appears in the club's online Beginners Guide: You should be informed that this club is mainly a competitive Scrabble club, not a recreational club. Translation: This is not a place to come and learn the game.
"Michael's not one of our top players. In fact, he's near the bottom," says club statistician Mike Wolfberg matter-of-factly. Indeed, of the club's 42 ranked players, Cresta is 35th, even after last month's record breaker. The win was statistically anomalous for him, besting his previous high score by more than 200 points. Nor was the game he played considered tactically brilliant.
"Technically, Cresta's strategy was unsound," wrote Stefan Fatsis in the online magazine Slate. "[E]xchanging letters three times, as Cresta did, to enhance some combination of Q, U, I, and X (for the word QUIXOTRY) is unorthodox at best, suicidal at worst... In Scrabble, the player who waits for the miracle word usually loses."
On all of this, Cresta concurs. "I come here to play and have a good time," he says. He pauses. "Also to learn." Recently he decided to learn the definitions of all the words he memorizes, not just the words themselves. "It'll help make me smarter," he says.
"Quixotry," as it turns out, implies "visionary schemes," which perhaps relates to what Cresta really hopes could come of his Scrabble reign: "It might bring me some carpentry jobs."