Like the Boston Celtics, the team he covers for the New England Sports Network website, Evans Clinchy, A09, has a drive to win. But instead of layups, Clinchy’s skill is laying down tiles.
A tournament Scrabble player for four years, Clinchy was ranked 31st in the United States in March, according to the North American Scrabble Players Association, buoyed by a 10th-place showing at last year’s national championship.
Clinchy says he played Scrabble with his mom “from the moment I could read,” but didn’t get serious until he read the book Word Freak, about the competitive Scrabble circuit. In 2007, as a sophomore English major at Tufts, Clinchy won his division in his first regional tournament. “If I hadn’t won my first tournament, I might not have been so drawn to come back,” he says.
For Clinchy, Scrabble gave him the competitive opportunities that he craved. “I wasn’t any good at sports, and I wanted something I could win at,” he says. He soon advanced beyond regional tournaments and went to his first national championship in 2008.
“Every time I went to nationals, no matter how poorly I did, I just felt motivated to do better,” he says. “It was just contagious like that.”
Competitive Scrabble draws an eclectic bunch; the players highlighted in Word Freak and the documentary film Word Wars include a stand-up comic, a pan-African activist and one dubbed “G.I. Joel” for his chronic gastrointestinal issues.
Clinchy compares the atmosphere to a golf tournament, “where it’s courteous to be as quiet as possible, but that doesn’t happen in reality.” In tournament play, each player has 25 minutes for the whole game, with a ten point penalty for every minute over the limit. The average game lasts about 45 minutes. The first place winner in the top division at the 2010 national tournament received $10,000.
Those first few years on the national Scrabble circuit weren’t the most successful. “But I just loved the words, and I loved the strategy of the game, so I just kept coming back.”
In 2010, Clinchy finally broke through, placing 10th out of 116 players in the top division at the national championships in Dallas. Over the course of five days, he played 31 games, with seven games on each of the first four days.
“I pretty much shocked myself,” he says. “I had no idea I was going to do that well.”
Over the years, Clinchy has perfected his Scrabble strategy, seeking out high-scoring plays while also making sure the letters left on his rack are useful when his next turn comes around.
“You want to find letters that have good synergy with each other so you can form good letter combinations and longer words,” he says.
But what really helps you advance in the game, says Clinchy, is mastering the dictionary.
“You can learn all of the five-letter words with a Z in them in one day. You can learn all the words with five vowels in them,” he says. “I put in a lot of work these days in learning the words and reviewing the ones I already know to solidify that knowledge.”
Contrary to what you might think, the best background for a Scrabble player is not loving language—despite Clinchy’s English degree—but having a feel for numbers and logic.
Scrabble, says Clinchy, is like chess with words. "You don’t just have seven playing pieces [with the tiles in your tray]; you have 120,000,” he says, referring to the number of words in the official Scrabble dictionary. “Nobody is required to know what the words mean. Just knowing that the words exist and can be used in the game is all that matters.”’
Clinchy recently booked his tickets to Dallas, where this year’s national tournament will be held in August. His preparation strategy is more or less the same, though this time around he knows many more words.
Despite being a top-ranked player, Clinchy still plays Scrabble with his mom. Sometimes, he says, it’s a challenge to set aside his competitive nature.
“She beat me a couple of times at Thanksgiving, so I was kind of mad for a few days,” he says. “But I got over it.”
Georgiana Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.