- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

When Trey Wright looks at a list of letters in alphabetical order, he doesn’t see a nonsensical jumble. He sees points, prize money and words for the board game Scrabble.

Mr. Wright, a 30-year-old concert pianist from Los Angeles, won the National Scrabble Championship on Aug. 5 in New Orleans. By doing so, he took home a $25,000 prize and stole the title from the previous champion and all-time Scrabble money winner, 53-year-old David Gibson.

“I always wanted to win a championship and be one of the national champions,” Mr. Wright said. “It’s funny — I don’t feel any different, just happy.”

Winning the National Scrabble Championship is not child’s play. To the 10,000 participants who spent five days competing, Scrabble is a game of luck, skill and, most importantly, strategy.

“It’s a very strategic game, but most people don’t realize Scrabble strategy. Most people don’t really play to win,” Mr. Wright said.

To Mr. Wright, playing to win means work, study and attention to detail. As a concert pianist, he knows how to apply persistence to master subjects. Like playing the piano, he says, knowing how to play Scrabble takes constant practice and memorization.

The official Scrabble Players Dictionary contains more than 120,000 words two to nine letters long that are legal in a Scrabble game. Mr. Wright’s work to master the game, which started when he was a high school student, included memorizing all of the two- to eight-letter words and many nine-letter words, studying up to six hours a day and playing games against both people and computers while boning up before tournaments.

All that was between getting his bachelor’s degree in music and his master’s in piano performance, along with piano touring, concerts and practice.

“What my mother says is that Scrabble is my break from piano and piano is my break from Scrabble,” Mr. Wright said.

He credits the piano with helping him become a better Scrabble player. By exercising his mind through piano practice and memorization, Mr. Wright said, he is better able to memorize words.

Mr. Wright’s key to Scrabble is not in knowing every word and definition separately; he doesn’t know the meaning of most words he has memorized and rarely taps his potential vocabulary when talking. To him, words are not an art. They are an abstract, mathematical system of patterns.

“We’re constantly solving problems,” Mr. Wright said, “[We are] asking ourselves questions and solving the questions.”

To memorize the words, Mr. Wright arranges each word in alphabetical order, called an alphagram. Each word initially was written on an index flash card. Now he has made his database electronic, entering words and alphagrams into a computer to make a study booklet.

He learns to recognize words within the alphagram by studying for hours on end, sometimes for six hours every day. Because of this practice, the tiles on his rack — the group of seven random letters each player has during a game of Scrabble — are not simply a bunch of letters; they are potential words. He sees “cdeorr” as “record” and “dgo” as “dog” or “god.” From his choices in the alphagram, he picks the most strategic word that will score the most points.

In high school, Mr. Wright was an above-average student with a mind toward mathematics, which is perhaps why he excels in the mastery of letter patterns. His total SAT score was 1,340, with a 780 score on the math section — 20 points from perfect. In 1992, when Mr. Wright graduated from high school, the average SAT math score was 501.

“I would much rather arrange the letters, work with the letters and toy with them than actually figure out what the words mean,” Mr. Wright said.

His interest in letters started when he worked in his father’s law office in Houston the summer he was 14. Bored, he would pick up a copy of the newspaper and work the daily crossword puzzle. That was a habit until he was 17, when crossword puzzles became tiring, so he started playing Scrabble with a friend. He has been at it ever since.

His first national championship experience was in 1998, when he placed second. Since then, he always has been in the top 20, but was taken by surprise at his first-place win this year.

Although he doesn’t know what he is going to do with the $25,000 prize, he says he will find a good, practical use for it.

Mr. Wright says he will “probably invest a little and pay off some student loans. Maybe I’ll buy a new couch.”

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