This student contest is run by the letter

Photographers draped in lenses circle the room, cameramen fiddle with equipment, and reporters stalk their next quote. Along the walls, adults huddle in tense bunches.

Was big news happening? You bet. On Nov. 14, more than 100 middle schoolers from 24 schools across Massachusetts gathered in Springfield for the first-ever statewide School Scrabble Championship.

You heard it. Not soccer, not softball, not video games. Scrabble. That old-fashioned game with no batteries included or needed.

Sponsored by Scrabble manufacturer Hasbro and the National Scrabble Association (NSA), the tournament is new, but the "School Scrabble" program has been around since 1992.

Recognizing the game's educational potential - teachers and parents agree the game increases vocabulary, math, logic, and teamwork skills - Hasbro and the NSA developed School Scrabble kits and started marketing the idea to schools. (The kits include six game boards, instructional materials, and a Scrabble dictionary.)

"It was a natural evolution," says NSA executive director John Williams. "We already had the game for adults. And people had been using it for years in schools."

The idea met with widespread approval. So far, 15,000 schools nationwide use the game.

As the governing body for Scrabble enthusiasts worldwide, the NSA already sanctions about 150 Scrabble tournaments each year. So they figured, says Mr. Williams, why not offer the same opportunity to kids?

They started testing the tournament market in Springfield through a few citywide School Scrabble contests. The statewide championship was a natural next step. And the NSA hopes this tournament will serve as a template for future state and national competitions. "Maybe someday someone will win a college scholarship through playing Scrabble," Williams says.

But they're targeting middle-schoolers for now, says NSA representative Yvonne Gillispie, because "they have the vocabulary for it, but it's before high school when they get more intimidated and self-conscious."

It seems the right choice since there's no lack of excitement from the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders here.

"It's so much fun!" clamors a contingent from St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly.

"Some people might say you're a geek," adds seventh-grader Ellen Handly. "But it's not true. It's so fun and they're not the people sitting here at this tournament and who will be on TV and in the paper."

Teachers are quick to underscore Scrabble's educational value. "I see their scores, vocabulary, and intentness increasing," says Martha Wrisley the Scrabble club coach from Brookings Middle School in Springfield. "Now they're even taking dictionaries home and studying."

The kids themselves recognize Hasbro's educational trump card. "You've got to hand it to them," says competitor Jason Comeau. "They've created a game that's educational and fun."

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