If there is such a thing as a Scrabble guru, Cornelia Guest certainly qualifies.
While she is a nationally ranked Scrabble tournament player in her own right, it’s the impressive track record of success on the part of the young players the Bethel resident coaches that truly garners attention and accolades.
“Success,” by the way, is worth 11 points in Scrabble. And 11 is about the number of youngsters she’s coached who have either earned a national championship in Scrabble or come very close — and most of those young champs hail from Connecticut.
In the past four years alone, four of Guest’s students from a weekly program she runs in Ridgefield have won the national Scrabble championships in their age groups, earning a total of $40,000 in prize money. In 2018, seven young players from the Ridgefield program finished in the top 10 in their age division at the national championship tournament. And for the first time last year, Guest coached the national champs in all three divisions.
“I’ve certainly helped them, but it’s the players themselves that have to put in the time, the studying and the practicing that can lead to a national championship,” Guest says. “I think, like any good coach or teacher, I view my job as helping each player be the best they can be. And in a good number of cases in our program here in Connecticut, that’s resulted in national champions. Hopefully, we’ll have a few more this year.”
On Tuesday evenings, boys and girls in grades three through eight sit around tables in the Ridgefield Public Library, as Guest drifts from table to table, player to player. “Are you watching for anagrams?” she asks one girl, pointing to the tiles on the player’s rack.
“Oh, ‘ax,’ ” the coach says with a smile, patting a fourth-grader on the shoulder. “That’s a good one. We like that little word.”
Two teams of two seem stuck in their game, so Guest offers some gentle coaching. “Are you looking at possible prefixes and suffixes for what’s on the board, boys?” That little guidance does the trick, and one player springs into action with a tile.
In 2018, Guest was honored as the Person of the Year by the North American Scrabble Players Association, in special recognition for her contributions to youth Scrabble.
What might seem odd to many is that Guest, for most of her life, never really liked games of Scrabble, even with friends or family. “I found the regular game of Scrabble very boring,” she says. “Sitting around waiting for what seemed like forever for someone to finally play a word like ‘the’ was in no way fun for me.”
Then in 2004, as a mother caring for young triplets, a friend recommended the book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis. Subtitled Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, Fatsis’ book chronicles the world of competitive Scrabble players as well as his own journey from novice to expert player. Many consider it the definitive telling of what tournament Scrabble is all about.
Want to take your Scrabble play to the next level? Coach Cornelia Guest can get you on your way.
“How Fatsis wrote about his own experiences in the somewhat wacky world of tournament Scrabble really excited me, so that same friend who suggested the book and I decided to enter a tournament for beginners that was taking place in Danbury,” Guest says. “I did terribly, placing 15th out of 20, I think, but I loved tournament Scrabble. Playing against somebody one on one, racing against the clock. It’s really a completely different game than the one most people play for fun on family game night, and I loved the tournament version, as well as the fun, interesting people I met playing it.”
Guest entered other tournaments, and her performance got better each time. Then she heard about School Scrabble — launched by Hasbro in 1992 and played by more than a half-million youngsters in the U.S and Canada in teams of two — and thought her young triplets might enjoy playing it as much as she did while also making friends and using their young minds.
“I looked around for a program for kids to learn the game and play toward competing in tournaments if they wanted to, and when I couldn’t find a School Scrabble program for kids in our area, I decided to create one,” she says.
The Ridgefield Library staff liked the idea, and after a slow start of less than a handful of kids who showed up, the program grew in numbers thanks to some publicity and word of mouth. That was 15 years and plenty of young Scrabble success stories ago.
In addition to the weekly hour-long sessions at the Ridgefield Library, Guest does two things she credits with helping her players succeed on the national level. “I organize tournaments for my students to play in, so when they compete in a major national tournament, it’s not the first time they are playing in a tournament atmosphere,” she says. “And the other thing is I regularly play with them online, and encourage them to practice and play online with each other and on their own as well.”
Online practice tools like Zyzzyva, Aerolith and Quackle abound, allowing players of all ages and levels to refine their Scrabble skills anytime they’d like on their smartphones, tablets or home computers.
“Technology has opened up a lot of doors for Scrabble players, as it has in most areas of life,” Guest says. “But while you can use technology to improve, it still comes down to the player using his or her mind in order to win.” Online Scrabble games are also on the rise, with myriad variations that allow a player to choose a shorter version, stop when they need to and resume at the same point, compete against players around the world and more.
School Scrabble tournaments are still played on traditional boards using a bag of 100 tiles, with individuals or teams seated across from one another. “There are lots and lots of online tournaments at all levels, but School Scrabble tournaments are still played with everyone competing in the same room for two reasons,” Guest says. “One, getting to know other players is a major part of the fun, but two, there are apps and digital programs that can provide you with anagrams and other Scrabble help in seconds, so if you’re not physically together when you’re playing, you can’t know for sure that someone isn’t using those types of tools.”
Still, technology has changed the way the game is played, even when it comes to teamwork. Take, for instance, two of Guest’s young players who paired up to win last year’s North American School Scrabble Championship. Westport resident Jeffrey Pogue, then 13, and his teammate, Noah Slatkoff, then an 11-year-old from Ottawa, Canada, never met in person before they arrived for the championship tournament in Philadelphia last April.
“Jeffrey and Noah practiced with one another using Skype for months before the tournament, and that was enough for them to click,” Guest says. After coming face to face for the first time in Philly, Jeffrey and Noah went undefeated in the two-day tournament in the championship division, capturing first place over 40 other teams in their age bracket and sharing the $10,000 prize that came with the title. “Theirs is a case where technology made something possible that up until a few years ago would be unheard of. Skype enabled two very talented players from two different countries to team up for long-distance practice that helped them become national champions together.”
Although the Ridgefield program has produced a bevy of national champions, including Guest’s own daughter, Aune Mitchell, who was the top School Scrabble player in the nation in 2007, the weekly sessions are open to players of all levels. “Youngsters can just drop in or come on a regular basis, and we welcome players who have never seen a Scrabble set before, to more accomplished players,” Guest says.
In addition to the public Ridgefield Library program, Guest also teaches Scrabble at schools in southwestern Connecticut and New York, and runs a club for adults in Brookfield.
Guest attributes her own success at playing and now coaching to a club she joined in Ridgefield a decade and a half ago that was at the time run by Rita Norr, the only woman to have ever won the National Scrabble Championship. Along with playing in as many tournaments as she could and playing online, in her early days of competitive play, Guest benefited from solid coaching from Keith Hagel of Ridgefield and Kevin McCarthy, then living in Norwalk. “Good coaches can make all the difference,” she says.
Pogue, now 14, and his older brother Kell, also a nationally ranked Scrabble player, credit Guest with specific advice, practice tips and game strategies that have helped them excel at the game. But Jeffrey says there’s a very meaningful trait that Guest instills in her students. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing Scrabble in person or online, staring at lists of words to memorize and working on anagrams using apps and other things, so you really have to love the game to put that much time into it,” Jeffrey says. “Cornelia really loves the game, and she gets us to fall in love with the game, too. Lots of patience, and a love of the game is what you really need to succeed at it.”
One of Guest’s favorite things about coaching young players is reaching that moment when student can outplay teacher. “I love it when my players beat me,” she admits. “It means I’m doing my job. That, along with seeing the teamwork it takes to win, is why I coach School Scrabble.”
Jeffrey’s father, technology writer and television contributor David Pogue, agrees, saying there’s more joy than regret in the fact that his sons can beat him and their mother at Scrabble. “Their parents do not enjoy playing with these guys anymore,” the elder Pogue says. “But we’re delighted that they’ve gotten that good.”
Guest says that whether it’s playing for fun or playing competitively, one thing is certain: luck plays a very small role in winning. Another point she makes is that knowing the right words, rather than the most words, leads to success on the board. Jeffrey, for instance, played Zyzziva as often as he could but also focused on all the word combinations from the most commonly drawn sets of seven tiles to prep for the national tournament.
“I think having a strong vocabulary is largely overrated when it comes to being good at Scrabble, since it’s a game that requires so much more,” Guest says. “It’s a game that involves math, strategy, board vision, managing your rack of letters well, and at higher levels, even probability comes into play, so an impressive vocabulary can be just one part of it. And I always tell my students that knowing lots and lots of two-letter words is as important, if not more important, than knowing a few big vocabulary words.”
Jeffrey and another North American champion from the Ridgefield program, Ian Whitehurst, 12, are among the young local players hoping to take the top spots again at Hasbro’s North American School Scrabble Championship, slated for April 27 and 28, again in Philadelphia. Both champions describe the tournaments as a strange mixture of lots of fun and plenty of tension — laughter between games, but palpable silence while competing.
“It’s such a thrill to be in the middle of a really intense game,” says Ian, a resident of Ridgefield who teamed up with Westchester, New York’s Kevin Zeng to win the challenge division of the North American School Scrabble Championship in 2018. “I play soccer and tennis, and obviously competitive Scrabble isn’t physically demanding, but it’s as exciting and as challenging as any sport out there. It’s the perfect combination of fun and intensity, and when you’re playing for the national championship, you’re sweating because it’s so tense. With Scrabble, you might not be using all the muscles you do in, say, soccer or football, but you can feel that muscle in your head working hard. Your mind has to be sharp, quick and focused. That’s what I love most about it.”
Thanks to Guest’s coaching and the success of her young players over the years, Connecticut has earned a national reputation for putting out champions. “North Carolina might give us some competition in terms of reputation, but I’d say Connecticut has a very formidable track record of School Scrabble success at the national level,” the coach says.
Connecticut, in fact, is also considered the birthplace of Scrabble, at least how the game is known around the world today. The origins of the game trace back to 1933, when an out-of-work architect named Alfred Mosher Butts created a game called Lexiko in his Queens, New York, apartment. He later changed the name to Criss Cross Words, hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of crossword puzzles. Game manufacturers, however, turned down Butts’ new game, and his attempts to patent it also failed, according to Hasbro, the current maker of Scrabble.
As fate would have it, Butts met Newtown resident James Brunot, an entrepreneur who loved playing Criss Cross Words. Brunot and Butts refined the rules and design, and most importantly, came up with a new name: Scrabble. Brunot and his wife Helen started making the games in their home in Newtown, and trademarked Scrabble in 1948.
“Pushing on, the Brunots rented a small, red, abandoned schoolhouse in Dodgington, Connecticut [a section of Newtown]. Along with some friends, they turned out 12 games an hour, stamping letters on wooden tiles one at a time,” according to scrabble.hasbro.com.
In 1949, the Brunots made and sold 2,400 Scrabble sets, but lost $450. Then in the early ’50s, the president of Macy’s stumbled on the board game while on vacation, and ordered a batch for the famous department store. Scrabble’s popularity soared, and in 1952, the Brunots licensed the game to Selchow & Righter, a well-known game manufacturer. In 1972, the same year Brunot’s wife died, the company purchased the trademark from Brunot. Ownership of Scrabble changed hands once more before Hasbro purchased it in the late 1980s. More than 150 million Scrabble sets have been sold worldwide, according to Hasbro, in 121 countries and in 29 languages.
“The story of the origins of Scrabble is very widely known in Newtown, partially because in my position, I’ve been telling the story to whoever will listen,” says Dan Cruson, Newtown’s town historian. “It is definitely a source of pride in our town.”
This is a big month for local School Scrabble players. In addition to the national championships at the end of April, the New England School Scrabble Championship is scheduled for April 6 at the Ridgefield Library.
Also, April 13 is National Scrabble Day, so dust off that old board (one in every three homes in the U.S. has the game, according to its makers) or go out and buy a new one, gather some friends and play. And maybe these will help: Guest’s favorite Scrabble word is “rebozos” (plural noun for a long scarf) and Jeffrey Pogue’s is “diaster” (a stage of cell division). Keep in mind that the 100 tiles in a Scrabble game can yield more than 16 billion combinations, so get to it.