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What a Rack

Jim Geary is a man of letters. Tiny, embossed letters, printed on smooth wooden tiles. Geary is one of the world's preeminent Scrabble players, a tournament competitor who's racked up big scores with words you've never heard before. He's so good that he's featured among the all-time champs in Scrabylon,...

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Jim Geary is a man of letters. Tiny, embossed letters, printed on smooth wooden tiles. Geary is one of the world's preeminent Scrabble players, a tournament competitor who's racked up big scores with words you've never heard before. He's so good that he's featured among the all-time champs in Scrabylon, filmmaker Scott Petersen's documentary about competitive Scrabble players, which debuts on April 24 in Phoenix. Geary, a professional poker player by day, and I settle in for a game of Scrabble -- which he wins, 236 points to my 90 -- and a lot of chatter about the dangers of hanging vowels and the importance of not "eating the Q."

New Times: I'm one of those people who loves Scrabble but plays only a couple times a year.

Jim Geary: Yeah. I could tell, because you've separated your vowels and your consonants on your rack, and so I know you have two of one and five of the other. As soon as you lay down some letters, I'll know what you have left over, and I'll know not to hang too many vowels.

NT: I see you can play with the board facing away from you.

Geary: Well, all the blood rushes to my head, but yeah, I can play upside down. Let me see your tiles.

NT: (turning tile rack toward Geary) I have an X.

Geary: Okay, you have two of the worst letters you could possibly have: Z and F. Your X is strong. You could play "Foxes," because it won't leave me a lot of plays on my turn. You shouldn't eschew high-scoring plays because they're dangerous.

NT: "Eschew" is a big word. Do Scrabble players have bigger vocabularies?

Geary: It's not the size of the prize, it's the motion of the ocean.

NT: Hey, that's funny. I'm gonna dump my tiles back in and get some different ones that you haven't seen. I'll bet you belong to a Scrabble club.

Geary: I've been the best player in Phoenix for about 10 years. The last time I went to a club meeting I won like 47 games, so it's not really worth it for me to schlep my game all the way to a meeting when I can play five games on the Internet in 30 minutes. I play about 10 games a day.

NT: I'll bet you were in the chess club in high school.

Geary: Matter of fact, I was the top-ranked chess player in Arizona at the time. I played chess in tournaments for years, and after I graduated from college my roommate and I were unemployed, and there was a Scrabble board sitting around. In college I'd become very competitive, because I'd played a lot of poker there and now I wasn't playing anything. So being competitive and good at everything I've ever done, I could tell I was born to play Scrabble.

NT: But what's the point?

Geary: Okay. There are writing vocabularies, speaking vocabularies and reading vocabularies. And then there's Scrabble vocabulary. What I've tried to do, rather than be some kind of idiot savant who knows all these combinations of words, is to use my Scrabble vocabulary. Which makes me different than most other Scrabble players. I'm always pretty surprised to come across a word I don't know the meaning of after playing for 10 years.

NT: I'll bet. So, now you're a fixture on the Scrabble tournament scene.

Geary: I started playing in 1992 and was playing expert tournaments six months later. I crossed the mathematical boundary for elite players about three years later. I have a really lousy rack here. U's, Y's and W's don't go well together. In fact, you could say the whole thing is pretty unwieldy. (Plays the world "unwieldy.") Okay, that's 69 points.

NT: How'd you get so good at this?

Geary: About a year after I started playing, I was playing a little old lady and I challenged a word she played and I lost the challenge. So then I spent an hour a day after that studying the dictionary. I flash-carded every word I didn't know, and by the end of the year I'd learned 40,000 words, and now losing a word challenge doesn't happen to me.

NT: Does being a Scrabble champ make you a chick magnet?

Geary: I don't know about that, but it certainly makes me more interesting than most other guys. I met my wife at a Scrabble tournament.

NT: (Plays the word "adorns.") Here. 20 points.

Geary: Ah, you could have played a seven-letter word there. But you probably don't know the word.

NT: Try me.

Geary: "Renegado." You could have made "renegado" off of this G here.

NT: I don't know that word.

Geary. Yeah, I didn't think you would. It's like a Spanish renegade. And you kept two vowels, which makes your rack a little unstable. You'll be a little happier if you don't do that.

NT: I'll try to be happier. I wonder if people think you're a loser because you're so deeply involved with a board game.

Geary: I don't really care about what people think, and I don't suffer fools gladly. A lot of people don't understand what it's like to be the best in the world at something. I tell people I play Scrabble and they say, "Oh, yeah, I play Scrabble, too!" Which would be like me saying to Tiger Woods, "I play golf, too!"

NT: It can't be easy to work into a conversation: "I'm one of the world's best Scrabble players!"

Geary: Well, I used to tell people I was a writer. Because I was unemployed, and saying I was a writer was just a different way of saying "unemployed."

NT: Uh-huh. So, you're saying that people don't get your Scrabble obsession.

Geary: People don't have any clue about what the different levels are in a Scrabble situation. I don't want to dismiss your playing, but right now you have no clue. The number of levels between you and me is in the double digits. But people don't appreciate that. They don't understand what's going on in my brain that I instantly saw where to play "unwieldy" on the board.

NT: (Plays the words "waiver" and "ra.") As you can see by my technique, I'm more of a Chutes and Ladders kind of guy.

Geary: I don't know Chutes and Ladders, but I've played a lot of Candyland. Hey, I'm going to challenge that word. "Ra" is not a word.

NT: I could use it in a sentence.

Geary: Nope. No! It's a proper noun. You lose your turn. Take your tiles back.

NT: That bites. So, one of the guys in the movie talks about Scrabble champs being socially inept.

Geary: G.I. Joel? That's because he is socially inept. But not every Scrabble player is. I'm not like that. I can hold my own in a social situation. I think.

NT: In the film, Joel kept talking about making a living playing Scrabble. Is that really possible?

Geary: It is if you live in your dad's house in the Bronx. But not if you're paying your own rent. The notion of making a living at it is kind of a joke. I couldn't do it. When someone says they're a professional Scrabble player, it's just another way of saying they don't do anything for a living. You might as well say you're a writer.

NT: Yeah, I got it. What are you thinking about while you play?

Geary: Lunch. And I'm generating plays and then evaluating them. I'm thinking about the geometry of the board and trying to figure out the best play. While we've been chitchatting, I've generated 20 different plays.

NT: And I'm just trying to figure out where to play my Q. One of the guys in the Scrabylon movie was drinking red wine vinegar while he was playing. Do you have any weird rituals?

Geary: No. I don't drink urine or anything like that. I know a guy who was drinking honey, garlic and lemon juice at the last tournament. (Lays down tiles.) Here's "pant," for 20 points.

NT: What the hell am I going to do with this Q?

Geary: You don't want to eat the Q. I'll write down a list of some Q words that don't have a U in them. It'll be useful when you're playing against your wife.

NT: Right. My wife. Are you Scrabble-obsessed?

Geary: I'm probably the least obsessed of the Scrabble experts. Game playing is what I'm good at. I enjoy it more than I did software engineering. If there's a calling for me, it's playing games. I could do pretty much anything I wanted to, probably. (Plays the word "ostracon.") Okay, give me 76 points.

NT: What the hell's an ostracon?

Geary: It's a fragment of pottery that contains an inscription.

NT: I'll take your word for it. Where would you be without Scrabble?

Geary: I was without Scrabble for a couple of years. After the 1999 World Championship, I took a couple of years off and basically didn't play for two years.

NT: It doesn't seem to have hurt your game any.

Geary: It did, though. I'm way down in the ranking of players. I just came from a tournament in Tennessee and I'm going to another in L.A. this weekend. I'm trying to make up for two years of damage in one month, because there are some big competitions coming up. And I want to be back in there, laying down tiles. I'm hard-wired for Scrabble.

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