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, 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.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela