What stands out immediately about 22-year-old Conrad Bassett-Bouchard is his combination of confidence and modesty. He's pleased, of course, with his current ranking as the top player internationally in the world of competitive Scrabble. But he's quick to say that the long-time reigning champion was off his game when Bassett-Bouchard earned his Number 1 ranking in Thailand's Princess Cup last year.
"I'd like to be the national champion or world champion," he said in an interview with Piedmont Patch this week.
Bassett-Bouchard will have a chance at the national title when he competes later this month in the 2012 National SCRABBLE Championship, which starts Aug. 11 in Orlando, Florida. Over 300 word experts from the US, Canada and several other countries will compete for the $10,000 prize. The event is put on by the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA).
Bassett-Bouchard's road from Piedmont to Orlando has been circuitous. He spent his first nine months of life here, then moved to Wilton, Connecticut, near Stamford, then — at age 7 — to Moraga, where he attended Campolindo High School. Then it was off to the University of California, San Diego, where he graduated this past spring with a bachelor's degree in psychology.
Now he's back in Piedmont, housesitting and working in his father's executive relocation business. His dad, Conrad Bassett ("like mine, without the hyphenated part") grew up here and is a Piedmont High School alum.
Competitive Scrabble, Bassett-Bouchard said, isn't much like the dinner-table version.
"It becomes a math game where you're calculating a lot of probabilities and trying to look ahead," he said. "It's a chess-like game with a luck factor. People can get stuck with bad tiles."
His training in psychology helps too. "I'm good at reading people, that seems to work well for me. Knowing your opponent's style helps. Oftentimes it's a guessing game."
And then there are the words. It's much more than finding any seven-letter word that fits onto the board, or thinking of a word that uses "z" and "t." Competitive Scrabble even has its own official dictionaries — two of them. An American English dictionary is used for acceptable words in U.S. competition, a World English version for international matches.
Bassett-Bouchard focuses on American English, spending about an hour a day with a computer program called "Zyzzyva," named for the last word in the dictionary.
"It's a tropical tree or something," Bassett-Bouchard said. The meaning of words isn't important in competitive Scrabble, only whether they will stand up to a challenge. The Zyzzyva program trains Bassett-Bouchard in the look of words, not their definitions.
"Studying words is not that exciting," he admitted.
Bassett-Bouchard began playing Scrabble with his parents and grandparents at age 3. He recalled having "n" and "u" tiles in a game against his grandmother, who suggested he use them to spell the Greek letter "nu."
"I was probably 4 or 5, and I didn't think you could use a Greek letter, so I didn't play it," he said. He doesn't make that mistake today.
Scrabble became a serious passion when Bassett-Bouchard was 14 and began playing the game online — "a relief from high school," he said. His parents encouraged him to enter a tournament at an Oakland game store, It's Your Move. Within the next eight months he was playing competitively at matches in Reno and Las Vegas. Now he's among the youngest top-level competitors, with a rating of 2006, meaning he's consistently among the world's top 10 or so players.
Scrabble competition isn't a route to quick riches. Bassett-Bouchard said he's won about $20,000 altogether. The real reward, he said, is in the friends he's made in the Scrabble community. The day of our interview, he was heading to a Giants game with one of them.
"I've had good friends aged 13 to 95," he said. "When I was 15 and playing in the Bay Area, I'd go out to dinner with the adults." In recent years, San Francisco has attracted a group of competitive Scrabble players and become something of a world center for the game.
The other center is Thailand, where Bassett-Bouchard competed in the Princess Cup in November, 2011. The tournament is so named because "one of the Thai princesses comes to it and pretends to be interested. She looked pretty bored," he said. But the event, held in a shopping mall, drew crowds and featured a giant Transformer-style robot with an oversized Scrabble board on its chest.
Bassett-Bouchard also played last fall in Malaysia, home to his nemesis and that of most other top competitors: Nigel Richards, two-time world champion, current U.S. champion, a New Zealand native and security system designer who works in the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur.
"He's a nice guy, but we hope this will be the year" he toppled by someone else, Bassett-Bouchard said. Like Bassett-Bouchard, Richards plans to compete in the Orlando championship event this month.
For those interested in competitive Scrabble, he recommends the following websites:
- http://www.cross-tables.com is the unofficial Scrabble players' website (upcoming tournaments, results, history)
- http://www.scrabbleplayers.org/ is the official North American Scrabble Players Association website (club info, join the organization)
- http://www.wespa.org/ is the official International organization (in which Bassett-Bouchard is ranked #1)
Bassett-Bouchard said those interested in Scrabble are also welcome to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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