TERRE HAUTE —
Drew Helton nodded his head like a wise college professor dispensing scholarly advice.
Instead, Helton — a fifth-grader — was explaining the definition of the word “za” to a visitor at Wednesday afternoon’s gathering of the Eastern Greene Middle School Scrabble Club. Awareness of such exotic two-letter combinations comes in handy to players of the iconic board game, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
“It means ‘many pizzas,’” Helton said of “za.”
To vocabulary challenged folks who only know “many pizzas,” Scrabble can be intimidating. It is played with two or four players by forming words with randomly drawn letters (printed on square tiles) and placing them on spaces plotted on a 15-by-15 grid. As in crossword, words can be played downward or across the board, and new entries must connect with one of those already played. Letter values range from 1 point (as in the common “a”) to 10 points (as in the “z” in “za”). Working with seven letters at a time, play typically continues until one competitor has no tiles left and the draw bag is empty. The high scorer wins.
The Eastern Greene Scrabble Club owns an impressive history of winning.
The youngsters have won five Indiana State School Scrabble Tournament titles and have participated in the past 10 National School Scrabble Championships since Eastern Greene fifth-grade science and math teacher Dinah Fuller started sponsoring the club in the late 1990s.
On Thursday, the club conducted its annual fundraiser silent auction to help defray the $1,000-per-student cost of this year’s trip to the nationals May 3 and 4 in Washington, D.C. That amount covers an airline ticket, food, hotel and sightseeing. Fuller hopes to send four two-player teams to the event. By encountering students from other states and cultures in a metropolitan city hundreds of miles from the hills of rural eastern Greene County, the experience broadens the kids’ minds, Fuller said.
“I tell [the parents], ‘You know, you better squeeze them now, because you’re not going to get the same kid back,’” she said.
The game itself has an impact on them, too. Their vocabularies expand.
“Words like ‘za’ and ‘qi’ I would have never known otherwise,” said Lilli Southern, a former Scrabble Club competitor and current Eastern Greene High School sophomore, who returns to Fuller’s classroom on Wednesdays to help coach and referee the middle-schoolers’ games.
It’s a popular place.
After school Wednesday, as usual, students’ backpacks lined the hallway floor outside Helton’s classroom and that of fellow fifth-grade teacher Matt Roberts, who assists with the club. The number of participating kids — from grades 5 through 8 — in the rooms leaves no space for backpacks.
“There’s something exciting about seeing that mess out there, because it means they’ve dropped everything to come in here,” Fuller said.
“I call them my prodigies,” she added. “They’re people who are anxious to belong to something.”
Words and young faces dominate the scenery in Fuller’s classroom, from the middle-schoolers playing Scrabble on desks or the floor to inspirational sayings posted on her walls and a photo collage on her bulletin board. Those snapshots include several taken during past Eastern Greene team trips to the national tournament. Those memories return in real-life form, too. Scrabble Club alums, now high-schoolers such as Southern, routinely drop in on Wednesdays to assist Fuller and play a game or two.
“I just love Mrs. Fuller, and Scrabble is just fun,” explained alum Dylan Abell, now a freshman.
At last week’s session, Abell took on the team of Tristan Vincz, a fifth-grader, and Tucker Piedmont, a seventh-grader. At the side of the board, the game clock — allotting 25 minutes per side — ticked away. Amid the convergence of common words was “hilts,” played by Abell. Through Scrabble, he said, “you learn new and different words.”
A few desks away, four fifth-graders pondered their tricky seven-letter sets in another close game. The tray in front of Helton and teammate Kolton Miller contained the letters w, b, i, i, e, g and t. On the opposite side, girls Jordan Newman and Kennedy Caswell eyed their assortment of g, k, n, i, n, e and v. Fuller recommends to the kids to think two words ahead of their next move. “We try to get two [ahead],” Caswell said, “but sometimes we can’t.”
Some of the club participants play Scrabble electronically, with tablets such as a Nook or a Kindle. The club, along with state and national competitions, encourages in-person matchups.
“Although there’s a lot of ways to play Scrabble electronically, they love to sit across from another person and play a game,” Fuller said.
That’s the case at home, too. Club players break out the Scrabble board with parents, grandparents and siblings. “It’s good practice for when you come here [to the Wednesday sessions],” Miller said.
And vice versa.
“It’s also fun to go home and play against my family,” Southern said, grinning. “They think it isn’t fair.”
Like the students, Fuller — a 54-year-old wife, mother of four and grandmother of six — plays Scrabble on the board at home with her family. She prefers those moments over online duels or one-on-ones in clubs composed of seriously competitive adults. “It’s like a lot of things — if you do it hard core and do it all the time, it becomes a job,” she said.
Fuller aims to keep the game in perspective in the club, too. At state and national tournaments, students learn to use good sportsmanship even in pressure situations. “It’s been fun to see our kids do the right things in competition when they have the opportunity not to do the right thing,” she said.
In her own childhood days, Fuller knew Scrabble as a snow-day activity. “As the daughter of two teachers, everything literary was encouraged,” she recalled.
Scrabble’s literary virtues show up in the standardized test scores of the Eastern Greene club members. “When it comes to a language-development section, they do a better job,” Fuller said. “They learn these quirky words.”
The game also offers life lessons in microcosm. “Sometimes you just get a lousy rack of letters,” Fuller said. “Sometimes you get all vowels or no vowels.”
That scenario became the subject of Eastern Greene Middle School Scrabble Club T-shirts. Printed on the shirts was the slogan:
“Philosophy of Life: Do the best with what you have. Philosophy of Scrabble: The same.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• American architect Alfred Mosher Butts created Scrabble in 1938, basing its letter values on the frequency of their appearance on The New York Times’ front pages.
• Hasbro markets the game in North America, while Mattel sells it elsewhere.
• Players theoretically have a pool of more than 120,000 possible words, according to the National Scrabble Association website.
• The all-important Scrabble Dictionary is available in paperback as well as a new downloadable mobile phone app.