THE license plates in the hotel parking lot read ``SCRABBL'' and ``JKQXZ,'' and one yellow window tag had the slogan ``Caution: Scrabble Player On Board.'' The cars' owners were here recently for the 1994 Boston Area Scrabble Tournament, organized under official sanction of the National Scrabble Association.
Scores of enthusiasts had registered for the four main divisions of wordplay: Newcomer, a short six-game schedule for unrated players; Novice, a full 12-game card over three days; Competitive, combining Expert- and Intermediate-ranked players; and Premier, the 14 highest-rated registrants.
As a first-timer in the Novice room I had a lot to absorb as the action ebbed and flowed between rounds.
A tournament helper posted computer-generated pairings for each round, and players would stop chatting about the latest defeat or victory to see what table and opponent they had drawn. In each round, competitors faced someone different: In Round 8 I met Ruth Rivard, whose Tuesday afternoon Scrabble club at the Senior Center in Acushnet, Mass., regularly draws up to 16 members; in Round 9, Etan Spierer, a recent Brandeis economics graduate still hunting for a career.
The hubbub would peak as opponents paired off, traded score sheets, assembled a board (Deluxe sets only, please!) and tile racks, and set the double-faced chess clock to 25 minutes per player. But moments later there would be near-silence, the rattling of letter tiles and tapping of clocks punctuated by an occasional cry of ``Challenge!''
Even though chance, board strategy, and anagramming skill all play a part, there's no question that word knowledge separates the truly advanced Scrabble players from the novices.
Expert player Stu Goldman tells a story in his self-published memoir, ``Confessions of a Compulsive Tile-Pusher,'' that illustrates this difference. A top player dropped in at a local club in a strange town. Given the tiles EEIIO and both blanks (wild tiles), he played EOLIPILE across a letter P on the board, using the blanks as L's (and earning the 50-point bonus for a ``Bingo'' -
using all seven letters in a rack). He knew this word was in ``The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary,'' but his opponent challenged. While the word was checked, she made conversation.
``Have you played this game before?''
``Oh, yes,'' he replied.
``You have to play real words, you know,'' she sweetly advised.
In my own first tournament, I won six games and lost six. My high point: playing GNARLIER for a 68-point Bingo; and my low point: failing to challenge YAX, which turned out to be a phoney.
The US and Canada have more than 200 sanctioned Scrabble clubs and 75 such tournaments a year. Many dedicated competitive players among the estimated 10,000 enthusiasts nationwide travel often, building their national ratings and hoping to win top division honors in a major tournament.
Prizes at this tournament ranged from a cow puppet for ``Best Barnyard Word'' (STABLES), to $160 for first place in the Premier division, won by Jan Jarell Dixon, of Marietta, Ga. - the first woman to win the event in this tournament's 13-year history. Prizes at national championships (next in Los Angeles, Aug. 13-18) can total $40,000.
And the ``JKQXZ'' license plate outside? It lists the five highest-scoring letter tiles - in alphabetical order.
* National Scrabble Association, P.O. Box 700, Greenport, NY 11944. Scrabble is a registered trademark of Milton Bradley.