Inside the world of competitive Scrabble
One of the world's best players shares what it takes to be a winning wordsmith.
The definition of the word "incurves" is to cause something to bend. But for Evan Cohen, it has taken on a completely different meaning. It's the word that scored him the most points (176) in a Scrabble game.
When you're a competitive Scrabble player like Cohen, you look at every word like something from a toolbox. "Any word that wins me the game is my favorite word of that game," he said, pointing out that even simple words like "dog" and "cat" could push him over the top. "I think that my favorite ones are words that look like they're misspelled. There's lots of them. Those are the kinds of words that I love."
On nights and weekends, the 48-year-old Cohen is the highest ranked Scrabble player in Israel. By day, he is a linguistics professor at Tel Aviv University. While you might think that gives him an edge, he's quick to point out that his professional calling doesn't translate to the board game. "It has nothing to do with Scrabble," he told From The Grapevine. "Phonetics has to do with sounds and languages. It has nothing to do with spelling or writing or Scrabble. It just happens to be the field that I'm in."
Cohen takes his hobby seriously. He puts in hours upon hours studying words and working with computer programs to simulate games. He's also the founder of the Tel Aviv Scrabble Club, a group of about 50 regulars who meet weekly to play. He's even married to another competitive Scrabble player.
Cohen's interest in the game began when he was a 9-year-old growing up in South Africa. "I started the way everyone does, with my grandmother in the living room." He joined his first Scrabble club in his late teens and has been playing competitively ever since. "Living room Scrabble is not the same game. It's not as competitive, it's not as systematic. It's more casual. It's fun. I don't enjoy it anymore."
So instead he attends international Scrabble competitions. Almost all of them use English, leveling the playing field, and allowing for players from countries all around the world to compete against each other. They usually consist of three days and dozens of games. "It's pretty intense," he said.
After a full day of competition, Cohen says the players let loose. "They're heavy drinkers," he told us with a laugh. "Scrabble players drink quite a lot. It helps you forget the troubles from the day. It's a pretty nerdy crowd as you can imagine. They're not particularly wild people."
Cohen is currently ranked No. 91 in the world. He's hoping to move up in the rankings at the World English-Language Scrabble Players Association tournament in Kenya next year. (The current world champion is a member of the Nigerian team who employs a surprising strategy of shorter words even when longer ones are available. In fact, Nigeria boasts more top-200 Scrabble players than any other country. But we digress.) In February, Cohen is helping organize an international competition in northern Israel, near the coastal Mediterranean town of Haifa.
Compared to chess, Cohen said Scrabble is extremely easy to learn. "I can literally teach someone to play Scrabble in five minutes," he explained. "If you like words and you like strategy, it's a beautiful game. And no two games are the same. They're always different from one another. You'll never get the same game twice."
With those infinite possibilities, he said he hopes to be playing for many years to come. "I don't see any reason to stop. As long as I can, I'm going to keep doing this. I've traveled all over the world and I enjoy it."
He said he no longer goes on regular vacations. "I only go on Scrabble holidays."
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