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Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: VIRGINIA WERNER - Maybe it would take eight tiles or more - rather than the standard seven - to beat the best at Scrabble. Our Virginia Werner recently challenged champ Conrad Bassett-Bouchard to a game, and walked away pretty impressed.I’m sitting across the table from Conrad Bassett-Bouchard of Portland, with a Scrabble board between us. It is looking grim for me, and the game hasn’t even begun.


In August, Bassett-Bouchard was the youngest American to win the 2014 National Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., at the age of 24. In 2012, he briefly held the No. 1 ranking in the world after beating the current world champion in Thailand and has played all over the

world with the international dictionary.

So, being a Scrabble fan myself, I challenge him to a game. Foolishly?

Bassett-Bouchard and I take turns selecting our seven tiles from the velour letter bag, and by the time I overcome my initial dismay at my selections, which include five vowels, Bassett-Bouchard plays “jimper” for 38 points.

When I look skeptical, he quickly rattles off all the variations of the word: jimp, jimper, jimpest, jimplee, jimpy. It turns out it means slender and delicate.

I counter with “dose” for 24 points, and in a matter of seconds Bassett-Bouchard has added up my score and played “sagaman” for 40 points. I silently vow to lose with grace and dignity.

Bassett-Bouchard started playing Scrabble with family at the age of 3 and began playing online in middle school. He started playing in tournaments his sophomore year of high school in his hometown of Moraga, Calif. Though he says the Bay Area has great opportunities for word play, Portland, where he has lived since April, is pretty much the best Scrabble city in the world — home to many expert-level players, including the 2005 and 2009 national champion Dave Wiegand.

By the fourth turn the score is 129-77, in Bassett-Bouchard’s favor. What’s saving me from complete annihilation is my commitment to playing Scrabblelike Words with Friends over the past few years, and becoming a decent player.

Bassett-Bouchard tells me the strategy for that game is very different, but I am familiar with most eligible two-letter words and how to “parallel play” — overlapping words by playing them parallel rather than perpendicular to each other. According to Bassett-Bouchard, developing this skill is half the battle.

I mention to Bassett-Bouchard that after playing a couple games I start to see the anagrams of words everywhere around me. He tells me he has had similar experiences.

“I like words and the patterns associated with them,” he says. “But at the end of the day, they are just words and I still can’t spell.”

This comes as a shock to me.

“I have been debating how to spell ‘icebergs’ for a while now” Bassett-Bouchard admits, indicating the “burgs” I played on an earlier turn.

Unfortunately for him, Merriam-Webster says he can’t play “ice” off of my word, but he knows plenty of others to compensate. He has spent many hours using Zyzzyva, a word study program available online to help him memorize words. Zyzzyva is the last word in many English language dictionaries and refers to a tropical American weevil.

Bassett-Bouchard doesn’t know all of the definitions of the words he has memorized, but it doesn’t matter. Expert-level Scrabble is more of a math game anyway.

I ask Bassett-Bouchard his opinion of recent dictionary additions “selfie” and “hashtag.”

“I’m totally fine with it,” he says. “Language to begin with is an imperfect tool, it’s the best thing we have come up with to communicate with people. As a necessity, it evolves.”

Toward the end of our game Bassett-Bouchard pulls a power play with “enticers” for 30 points, plus the extra 50 points he gets for the bingo — using all of his tiles in one move.

With a final score of 479-261, I take a moment to reflect on the board. Completely unrecognizable words like “unai,” “amine” and “kolo” jump out at me. Even though Bassett-Bouchard volunteered to play the game upside-down because there wasn’t enough room to rotate the board for every turn, he clearly didn’t need the extra perspective to dominate the board.

I have learned many lessons — and many words.

What’s next for this wordsmith?

Bassett-Bouchard will travel to New Orleans next month for the Crescent City Cup, and defend his title later in 2015 at nationals in Reno, Nev.

In Portland, he meets up with a small Scrabble group on Tuesdays at a local bar, but they keep it casual and friendly. He is applying to grad schools — Carnegie Mellon and Cal-Berkeley among them — and wants to work with human computer interaction and user experience.

As we put the game away, the Scrabble tiles clatter together rhythmically. Clearly this game has not been a nail-biter for Bassett-Bouchard, who strives to maintain a cool demeanor no matter the venue.

“My goal is just to be calm and accept that I can’t control probability,” he says, sharing his philosophy for heightened Scrabble game play. “All I can do is make the best play with the seven tiles in front of me.”

If you would like to up the ante of your next word-off and play some serious Scrabble, check out local Scrabble meet-ups like the Lake Oswego Scrabble Club at portland scrabble.org. Though it’s technically illegal to play Scrabble online, there are good alternatives like Lexulous and Words with Friends.

Virginia Werner is an intern with Pamplin Media Group

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