Kids scramble in DC’s first schools scrabble tournament


Ethan Rosenthal had a Q. The clock was ticking and the high ceiling gymnasium
was suffocated. The round-faced, shaggy-haired 11-year-old looked at the words arranged on the Scrabble board, then arranged six letters.

Q – I – N – T – A – R.

It didn’t matter what the word meant (a qintar is an abandoned Albanian coin). What mattered was that Ethan’s hours memorizing Q words that don’t take U had paid off – 110 points in one piece.

It was a personal best – and the highlight of the inaugural DC Public School District Scrabble tournament, which took place at Wilson High School on Saturday.

Forty-eight students from three elementary schools, three middle and two high schools spent the day in teams of two, hunched over game boards that Hasbro gave to the school system last year. The National Scrabble Association provided game tiles, timers, and other materials.

The tournament is part of the city’s efforts to improve schools by forming partnerships with organizations and businesses that donate time or resources.

“We want our children to have rich and varied experiences, and that only adds to what they do in the classroom,” said Shereen Williams, director of community partnerships for DC Schools.

Next month, schools will host their first district-wide chess tournament, with support from Chess Challenge, a local non-profit group. Williams said she hopes the tournaments become annual events.

Janney Elementary School and Deal Middle School, two of the schools represented on Saturday, have had Scrabble clubs for several years, thanks to the efforts of Stefan Fatsis. The author of “Death Freak”, on the world of competitive Scrabble, Fatsis lives in Tenleytown and promotes the game in local schools. There are now clubs in 25 to 30 schools in the city.

Scrabble has remained relevant in the digital age, with online versions of the game increasing in number. But playing it in the flesh is different, Fatsis said.

The stakes are lower when online players can easily go to websites for help, he said. “When there is the pressure of an opponent looking you down and the clock moving towards zero, the feeling of ‘I have to do it in the next minute’ – it’s something that engages every part of the game. your mental energies. “

Scrabble was invented in the 1930s and it became popular after WWII in the United States and around the world. The Scrabble World Championship, held in English, is usually won by people from English-speaking countries, but not always – two champions are from Thailand.

A few cities and states in the United States have children’s tournaments, and some children in the district have attended the National School Scrabble Championship.

The game is not just about spelling and vocabulary; it’s also a study of probability, geometry and spatial relationships, Fatsis said, adding that advanced players keep track of which letters have been used in order to infer which ones opponents are most likely to have.

“For the kids,” he added, “it’s also fun to learn that ‘cwm’ is a word.” (It’s a geological term.)

At Ballou High School, which had one student in Saturday’s tournament, the game became so popular that the club had to be split into two groups.

“You hear them arguing over ‘It’s a word’, ‘It’s not a word’,” said Melissa Jackson, a librarian from Ballou. “They walk over to the shelves and pull the books down” to check.

Some tournament children had played in adult tournaments; for others, it was the first time that we had played someone face to face.

Christian Tarver, 17, a student at Multicultural Bell High School in Columbia Heights, had only played Scrabble on a computer until this week. Now he was up against kids half his age who had been playing since he was 3.

“They say to me, ‘What year are you in?’ he said rolling his eyes and smiling. “I’m like ‘You don’t want to ask.’ “

As the children argued over whether “yeti” was a proper name, a few parents stood by the pizza and cookies.

Ethan’s father Dan Rosenthal said Scrabble gave his son something competitive to do. “He doesn’t do a lot of sports,” he says. “But the way Stefan [Fatsis] treats it like a sport, and a lot of athletic boys get into it.

As the referees walked around to make sure the rules were followed and the scores were correctly counted, there were only whispers between teammates and tiles slamming on the boards.

“Dude, is ‘gul’ a word?” Nicholas Spasojevic, 9, a fourth-grader at Janney, asked teammate Felix Garland, 10.

“Dude, that’s not a word,” Felix replied.

But they still seized the opportunity, and when their opponents challenged them, the four of them ran through the gym to a computer to check it out. As it turned out, the word was acceptable, although none of them could say what it meant.

“The meanings don’t make sense in Scrabble, and it’s a very difficult thing for people to come to terms with,” Fatsis said, although he said children seem to embrace the concept more easily.

“Adults cling to what it means, I’ve never heard it. The wonderful thing about children is that they are much more open-minded and much more curious, so they will fully accept that “zoea” is a word. “

(For those who cling to the meaning, “zoea” refers to a larval form of certain crustaceans.)

Knowing words like flimflam can impress your friends, said Eliana Rosenthal, 10, a fourth-grader at Janney. “I admit it’s pretty fun showing it. “

As in chess, the top-ranked Scrabble players tend to be men, but on Saturday Fatsis’ daughter Chloe, 9, and her teammate, Zara Hall, 10, in fourth grade at Janney, won the tournament, accumulating 338 points in the last game. to the 289 of their opponents.

“We played ‘veritas’ and we also played ‘zany’ which was 66 points,” said beaming Zara.

So what was the next step for the winners? Would they retire?

Yes, Zara said. “Until next year.”

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