Hidden Talents: Scrabble Champ

Music teacher, pianist and composer Thomas Stumpf deftly unscrambles letters for the game board
Thomas Stumpf
“You have these seven letters, and then the question is, What do I do with them to make them form something that has meaning?” says Thomas Stumpf. Photo: Kelvin Ma
January 25, 2016

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In this occasional series, Tufts Now highlights the hidden talents of Tufts faculty and staff.

Thomas Stumpf, a classical pianist who teaches in the applied music program and directs the Opera Ensemble in the School of Arts and Sciences, brings a prodigious versatility to his passion for music. He earned degrees in piano performance from the Mozarteum University in Salzburg and the New England Conservatory of Music, winning concerto competitions at both institutions.

His compositions have been performed throughout the United States as well as in Germany and Russia. He is co-founder and artistic director of Prism Opera, and has conducted and directed operas by Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. His book of essays, A Sounding Mirror: Courage and Music in Our Time (Higganum Hill Books, 2005), draws on literature, philosophy, psychology and religion to illuminate how music grounds the human experience in a beauty that can, in turn, deepen our spirituality and wisdom.

When he is not playing piano, Stumpf indulges in another kind of play—Scrabble. The game is another opportunity to solve problems, he says, not unlike the challenge of composing music. Turns out he’s quite good at both.

Stumpf is ranked 107th in the U.S. among the Scrabble competitors known as Collins players. They exclusively use the Collins dictionary, the standard for the game everywhere in the world except for the U.S. A member of the North American Scrabble Players Association, he anticipates fitting more competitions into his busy schedule when he retires in June as music director at Follen Community Church in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Stumpf sat down with Tufts Now to talk about the pull of Scrabble on his life, and the joy he finds in seven random letters.

Tufts Now: How did you get started with Scrabble?

Thomas Stumpf: Like most people, I played as a kid. I grew up in Hong Kong, where my father was director of the Lutheran World Federation. We had a fractured relationship, but Scrabble was a way to bond with his somewhat recalcitrant son. We used a dictionary, so we played what I would call a living room Scrabble, as opposed to tournament Scrabble. I enjoyed it tremendously.

What drew you into the tournament world?

I went to a conference in 2000, and somebody there decided to organize a Scrabble tournament. I hadn’t played Scrabble in 20 years, but I joined the contest, and I won. I realized how much I enjoyed Scrabble—there was a level of competitiveness that I liked.

Where was your first tournament?

It was in Boston, in 2001. I did pretty well. But I am a church musician, so I have a job on Sunday mornings, and all the tournaments are on the weekends. I’m now doing three or four tournaments a year, mostly in Boston, Albany, Atlantic City and a couple of Connecticut locations. I’m hoping that when I retire from my church job in June I can play more often, because playing often is good. My wife laughs when she says, “You’re not match-tough!” But it’s true. There is a certain sharpness that comes with playing a lot of matches.

What about the game appeals to you?

I love finding good words and putting them in the right place on the board. Some of the most wonderful things about games like Scrabble are the elements of luck and skill. The luck is whatever I draw out of that bag. The skill is, What do I do with those seven letters? My challenge is to make the best out of them. Sometimes I even decide, OK, this is so bad I’m going to have to use my turn to exchange the tiles, and sometimes I draw even worse tiles! If I draw U-U-U-Y-Y-J-W, there’s nothing I can do. Throw it back in the bag. If the tile gods are totally against me, and I have all the bad luck, I know that five minutes later I will get another chance. It helps to have a sense of humor.

Is there a connection between your Scrabble skills and your music career?

Honestly, I just love words. I do crossword puzzles; I play word games. I like how things have to fit together, vertically and horizontally. And that’s very similar to composing music. How do you make sense out of a jumble of notes? You have to put them together to shape something that makes sense. Scrabble is like that, too. You have these seven letters, and then the question is, What do I do with them to make them form something that has meaning?

Talk about the use of the dictionary in the game, because I don’t think many people understand how that works.

Dictionaries are part of the tournament world. I and the rest of the world use the British dictionary; everybody just refers to it as “Collins.” But Americans have their own dictionary, published by Merriam-Webster; it’s used only in America. The American one’s fine, but it’s easy. You don’t have to learn the 50,000 more words that are in the British dictionary. I switched a few years ago to playing Collins. It’s in my den on my little tray table, so during ads on television, I take it out and start reading.

I love playing against Collins people—these are the people who want to go to the world championships, so they are some of the top players in this country. I get to play all these amazingly good players who are far better than me. Occasionally I win, and that makes me feel like a total hero.

Scrabble is more than memorizing words, right?

The game is also partly the ability to anagram, to see these seven letters on your board and in your mind. You scramble those letters 50 million ways and see what words you can get. But then, of course, you have to also see what’s on the board already. If there’s an open E, now you have to add the E to those seven letters. There’s a certain kind of ability that comes with anagramming practice.

What do you see when you look at the board?

You try to see hot spots. Maybe there’s a triple-letter score that’s just waiting to have a good letter attached to it. But we rarely play only one word at a time; that’s why you have to know two-letter words so well, so you can do parallel plays.

There’s also math involved. We keep track of what letters have been played. If I need an E to make this really, really good word, it is helpful to know how many Es are left in the bag. So you think, OK, there are still 50 tiles in the bag, and only three of them are Es. My options aren’t too good. But if there are only 20 tiles in the bag, and four of them are Es—now I could try fishing for the E.

Can you share a word triumph?

I’ll tell you one story that still kills me today. I actually made the word “equipage.” It comes from the word equus, horse, and it refers to a horse and carriage, the kind the nobility used to have. I think there was a P on the board. I got the rest of the letters and played it so that the first E and the last E were both on a triple-word score. The Q is already a high-scoring letter, so it got me over 200 points. You know what the terrible thing was? It didn’t count in my ranking because it wasn’t in a tournament. It didn’t count. So there you go.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.