Searching for VICT-0-RY: Hingham High junior heads to National Scrabble Championship

Scrabble aficionados agree that self-taught Donnelly has chops.

“James presented a level of play that seasoned adult players would be proud to achieve,” said Will Anderson, a former champion who did the play-by-play on the livestream of Donnelly’s last game, which ended finished with a score of 383–415. “He’s clearly extremely talented at Scrabble, and if he continues to take the game seriously, the sky’s the limit for him.”

Donnelly started playing Scrabble with his family around age 8 and became more interested in college. But it was only in the wake of the pandemic – when he “didn’t have much to do” – that he became a serious student of the game.

He found a Scrabble site online and started learning words. He started with the 107 possible two-letter words, worked his way up to the most obscure combinations, and studied the most likely words that use all seven letters of a player – the coveted “bingo” that brings an extra 50 points to a score. . (Donnelly had two bingos in his last championship match: “argonaut” and “wrestler”.)

Donnelly also studied Scrabble strategy, a complicated mathematical approach to where and when to place words on the board, and learned to calculate exactly what letters his opponents might have as the game progressed.

“It’s not just a game of luck,” Donnelly said. “You have to figure out what your best game is every round. You’re basically thinking about the end game. How can I win this game? »

Depending on how much homework he has, Donnelly spends 30 minutes to an hour playing Scrabble every night. His school doesn’t have a Scrabble club and none of his friends play, so he’s “pretty much a lone wolf,” he says, but he hopes to make Scrabble friends through tournaments.

He compares playing Scrabble to the rowing team, which he does for Hingham High School. “You have to focus on form, stroke, power, competition – several things while trying to give your best,” he said.

Stefan Fatsis, who organized the North American School Scrabble Championship – and wrote the definitive book on the subject, “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players – said he understood the rowing comparison.

“Both require dedication, time, patience and you have to commit; it takes a level of commitment,” Fatsis said. “If you want to put in the time and learn thousands and thousands of words, you’ll get good – if you have the right wiring. Scrabble’s dirty little secret is that it’s a math game. It’s all about probability and pattern recognition, geometry.

This perhaps explains the origins of Scrabble. The game was invented during the Great Depression by an unemployed architect from Poughkeepsie, NY named Alfred Mosher Butts – and first named LEXIKO. Butts partnered with entrepreneur James Brunot to produce the game as Scrabble in the 1940s, producing 12 games per hour; in 1949 the company said it made 2,400 sets and lost $450.

Scrabble took off, however, in the 1950s, and current owner Hasbro estimates that three out of five American homes own a game. And the North American Scrabble Players Association has thousands of players competing at sanctioned clubs in the United States. United and Canada.

The tournament in which Donnelly has done so well has been around since 2003, with a two-year hiatus for the pandemic. Seventy students competed at Planet Word, a language museum in Washington DC

The National Scrabble Championship takes place July 23-27 in Baltimore.

“Scrabble is as sophisticated a game of strategy as chess or backgammon or anything else,” Fatsis said. “If James continues to study and play, he will become a top expert player in no time. He’s already so good.

Johanna Seltz can be contacted at [email protected]

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