Backstory: Of carpenters and Scrabble kings

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

* * *

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.

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."

* * *

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."

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