Chapel Hill team reaches Scrabble stardom

schandler@newsobserver.comMay 19, 2013 

Raymond Gao, left, and teammate Kevin Bowerman hold the first-place trophies they won in the National School Scrabble Tournament this month in Washington, D.C. The Smith Middle School students, both of whom live in Chapel Hill, split the $10,000 grand prize.


  • Scrabble in the spotlight

    Kevin and Raymond have been invited to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live this Thursday to chat about their win and maybe challenge the host to a friendly game of Scrabble. The show airs on ABC at 11:35 p.m.

  • Step up your game

    Want to improve your Scrabble skills? Kevin and Raymond offered some tips:

    • Don’t get hung up on vocabulary. “A lot of scrabble players don’t have that good of a vocabulary,” Kevin explained. “Ninety percent of the words that I play in a game, I don’t know the meaning of. All I know is that they’re words.”

    • Instead, Raymond said, “work on being able to find words in the tiles.” In other words, know how to work with what you have. Knowing your anagrams (words made from the same letters in a different order) can help here.

    • Scrabble champs like Kevin and Raymond study a lot of lists. Find lists of high-probability words (Kevin said “aneroid” and “redtail” are a couple of his favorites) and study lists of two- and three-letter words that can really help you out of a jam.

    • Your best teacher is your computer. The boys do most of their practicing online, and they say there are all sorts of programs, websites and lists for people who want to boost their skills.

To get really good at Scrabble, you have to play a lot of Scrabble.

That’s the winning strategy from Kevin Bowerman and Raymond Gao, eighth-graders at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill who as a team won the 2013 National School Scrabble Championship this month.

Kevin estimated that he plays about 10 to 15 hours of Scrabble a week, mostly online – and much more in the weeks leading up to the national tournament, held in Washington, D.C. Raymond plays “a little every night,” adding up to maybe seven hours a week, he said, including weekly play with a local Scrabble club on Sundays.

The boys became friends in fourth grade and discovered Scrabble together.

“We just decided to go to Scrabble Club one day and we just fell in love with the game,” Kevin said.

Kevin said it’s the strategic challenge that keeps him playing, as well as the ever-present chance for glory.

“Even the best players in the world don’t know every word in the dictionary,” he said, “so you could always know more.”

Raymond enjoys the satisfaction that comes from a successful turn.

“What I like about it is there’s lots of chances to make really good plays, and when you make one you feel really accomplished,” he said.

The competition at the national tournament, which paired up teams of students in grades 4-8 for 10 games over two days, was intense, Raymond and Kevin said, but friendly.

“The game is just fun overall, unless you get too into if you’re making the right play or not,” Kevin explained. “I tend to try to think about it a lot, but not overthink it.”

In a Scrabble team, two people are doing the thinking, often communicating by scribbled-down notes or, as with Kevin and Raymond, whispers.

In their team, Kevin is the one picking words to play from the team’s seven letters and scouting placement on the board, while Raymond is making sure he’s not missing anything and handling scorekeeping and the game clock.

Sometimes, the boys admitted, they disagree on the best word or placement, but with a 25-minute time limit per turn, and a 60-minute limit per game, they’ve learned to work out their differences pretty quickly and move on.

After the 10-game main tournament, Kevin and Raymond’s accumulated points put them in the top two, so they sat down for the championship game, which determined the tournament winner.

“The last game went by really fast,” Raymond said. “As soon as it was over, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re national champions!’ I was really surprised.”

The boys won $10,000 to split and plenty of bragging rights, which they’ll get to display for a national late-night TV audience Thursday on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” show.

They’re getting flown to Los Angeles for the show, which traditionally has had the school tournament champs go head-to-head against Kimmel in a 250-point game of Scrabble.

Will the boys go easy on Kimmel, seeing as how he’s a celebrity and their host for the evening?

Kevin laughed at the question, then answered: “No.”

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