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Scrabblers unite for love of words


The tiles click against the board as the players groan.

"So it's 102 to 0 right now."

The proclamation draws spectators closer. "That's ridiculous," one comments.

"I know," Martha laughs. Looking over at her opponent, Jesse, shaking his head and shuffling his tiles, she smiles. "You did win the last time we played, just so you know."

Tucked away in the back corner of Julian's Restuarant on Broadway, the Providence Scrabble Club meets weekly for casual competition. The club's members are an unlikely mix of locals. "All we have in common is that we give up a Monday night to play Scrabble," said Rich Lupo '70, the club's founder and director.

Every Monday around 7 p.m., the players drift into Julian's. New games start with each new arrival, and players settle into a row of two-person games. Once in a while, some of the players order food, but more often they stick to coffee, ginger beer and the occasional glass of wine.

Squeezed in at a long table under dim lights, each game proceeds on a slightly different edition of the Scrabble board. At least half the players bring their own equipment, and there is a house set too, though it may be missing a tile or two.

Both players keep careful score, constantly checking the numbers to ensure consistency and calling out the tallies as they go along. "159-83." "326-298." "405-366."

In such close proximity, it's hard not to pay attention to the other games. "I saw you looking at my tiles," one player jokes to a seatmate, before pointing out a word he had missed himself.

When a game finishes, the players carefully watch the active boards, looking for their next opponent. Though an odd number show up on Monday, the players passed around a recent New Yorker article about Scrabble to keep the extra person entertained.

Ability levels range, as do the strategies players employ. "At a big Scrabble tournament, 10 of the first 20 are computer programmers," Lupo said. But here, there's a lawyer, an urban planner, a newspaper columnist, a realtor.

The only common thread among the Scrabble players is that everyone has to be a "nerd," Lupo said, "somewhere inside."

Lupo, the owner of Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, the famous downtown concert venue, has a long history with the game. He used to sometimes drive to three Scrabble clubs in Boston and played with a regular group in Providence, first at Coffee Exchange on Wickenden Street and then in the Blue Room at Brown. But the Blue Room group - the "forefather" of the current club - petered out over time.

In 2000, the National Scrabble Championships were held in Providence, a nod to Pawtucket-based company Hasbro, which holds the domestic rights to Scrabble. Lupo, who played competitive Scrabble for 25 years, decided to enter.

To help Lupo practice, a friend suggested restarting the club. Lupo sought out other enthusiasts at a Providence Journal Scrabble fundraiser and placed an ad in the Providence Phoenix. The small group of five or six - none of whom knew each other - started playing at Julian's.

The restaurant was closed on Mondays, but Lupo had a key. Though patrons now fill the room even on Mondays, the owner still lets the group occupy the back no matter how crowded the

restaurant is.

These days, eight to 14 players show up each week. Most new players who join hear about the group through word-of-mouth, though the club has received some media coverage over the years. Lupo attributes a recent influx of younger players to the online Scrabble phenomenon.

Once in a while, a restaurant patron wanders to the back and starts playing. "Lots of people see us in Julian's and tell their friends," Lupo said.

Jacque Russom, who has been playing since the club's inception, used to work doing spell checking for the American Heritage Dictionary and is now an etymology editor. Her husband Rick, who also frequents the meetings, retired last month from his post as a professor of english at Brown.

"I'm a word person," she said, referring to what she said was a Scrabble dichotomy between players like her, who "get by on our giant vocabularies," and those, especially numerous among the newest generation of Scrabble players, who have strategically memorized the 101 two-letter words and 1,008 three-letter words.

"It was a shock to us when we started playing," Russom said. "I like to make nice words, but this game is about points." She joked that maybe now since her husband has retired, he will get around to the memorization method, too.

The group is not a sanctioned National Scrabble Association Scrabble Club, "which requires rules, and record-keeping and calculating player ratings, and dues and such," said Beth Comery, the group's de-facto secretary. Instead, "we are just a bunch of random people who get together," she said.

Comery, who answered Lupo's original ad nine years ago, writes a weekly newsletter to the 150 people on the club's e-mail list. An editor and director of sales for the blog Providence Daily Dose, Comery fills the newsletter with Scrabble-related anecdotes and game recaps.

Recipients of the newsletter, both former and current players, are scattered across the world - one lives in Liberia - and across generations. The youngest member to ever attend was 14 years old and "had a bright Scrabble future," Lupo said. "But then he got a girlfriend and lost interest."

The group's members have become friends after years of playing. "Occasionally some hang out outside Scrabble," Lupo said. After a pause, he added, "to play Scrabble."

Anytime a movie about Scrabble or gaming comes out, the club goes on a group outing. According to Jacque Russom, the group, "newly infatuated with the game," attended the 2000 tournament. "We were the only spectators," she said.

Some Brown students have attended over the years, including a few from Professor Russom's courses. He never advertised the club explicitly, his wife said, but word of the club spread through his classes.

A "clot" of alums come from time to time, usually as a group, Comery said.

State Representative David Segal, D-Dist. 2, is also a regular attendee. "We had time to discuss the pro-Scrabble initiatives he will introduce in the new year," Comery joked in an old newsletter.

One of the group's younger players is Jesse Stout '06, who has been attending for two-and-a-half years - "basically the entire time since I graduated from Brown," he said. Stout walked in late on Monday night as Martha Barrett, a retired teacher and one of the last stragglers, was putting on her scarf and coat. Unable to resist another game, she pulled her board, pad of paper and official Scrabble dictionary back out of her bag.

Opening with a "bingo," a play that uses all seven tiles, Barrett placed SEQUINS across the center of the board. The lead alternated between the two: Stout played three bingos, but was forced to score zero twice (once for an incorrect challenge, once in a pass). Words unfamiliar to anyone but a Scrabble buff - JO, ZIN, IBEX - covered the board.

By the end of the game, each player knew exactly what was on the other's rack. Expert Scrabble players keep careful mental track of the tiles in the bag and guard sacred spots on the board, like the triple word score.

As the game drew to a close, Barrett and Stout realized they had pulled off an unusual Scrabble feat: a tie. With scores of 380 each, the two started scooping the tiles back into the bag, but not before analyzing the game.

Nearly every game ends in a quiet discussion of turns well-played and moves that could have been. The dictionary reappears as the players look up the possibilities, making mental notes for the future.

"Oh, but you got that."

"I should have known you still had an S."

"You really went for the H's."

Earlier in the night, examining a game he had played with Max, a new addition to the club, Lupo went through the moves he had made. Remembering one turn specifically, he just shook his head.

"You know, I saw that word."


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