CARY — The Scrabble champion lives on a cul-de-sac in Cary, where he spends 15 minutes a night memorizing the dictionary.
He relaxes between games by playing Haydn sonatas on the piano, or maybe Scott Joplin rags if he’s in the mood for something jaunty.
At age 15, he’s the youngest player to ever win the national title in Las Vegas – Division 3 – a feat he pulled off by plunking down “poutine,” “abampere” and other 60-point gems.
So I took a wild gamble and challenged this wunderkind to a Scrabble throwdown, risking whatever reputation as a wordsmith I may have accumulated.
I expected an arrogant, precocious, stuck-up twerp to answer the door. I predicted I’d be playing the sort of kid who snickers at other people’s science projects – especially my homemade volcano with the lava made from baking soda, vinegar and red food coloring.
But I guessed wrong. Andy Hoang greeted me with a polite handshake, introduced me to his mother and led me to the platinum-edition board waiting in the dining room.
He showed me the tiles they use for tournaments: plastic rather than wood, the letters printed rather than engraved so you can’t try to feel them inside the bag.
He explained the speed chess-style timer we’d be using: 25 minutes per player, per game, with a 10-point penalty for every minute past the deadline.
Then he smiled with all the sportsmanship of a little-leaguer.
“Let’s have a good one,” he said.
I do not consider myself a Scrabble slouch. What I lack in skill I make up in ferocity.
My wife refuses to play with me because, whenever I win, I draw pictures of myself as the crown-wearing Scrabble King, placing her in the Scrabble dungeon. I have been known to yell “Boo-ya” when placing a triple-word score.
But here is a kid who goes to Wake Early College and won his first Scrabble tournament at age 11, the year he learned to play.
Here is a kid whose family piano is covered with trophies, along with the framed picture of a pair of interlocking Scrabble tiles that spell “love words.”
Here is a kid who played Jimmy Kimmel on television and drew this comment from the frustrated late-night host: Why can’t you play video games like normal kids?
Here is Andy’s answer to this query, a parent’s dream:
“I realize how fortunate I am to be able to stay home and study piano, school and Scrabble. Because of the sacrifice my parents made to allow me and my brothers to have this opportunity, I know that I must use it to excel at my studies rather than spend it online or playing video games.”
So as we picked our tiles, I could smell my own doom.
Andy laid down the first word and slapped the timer: “piece” for 24 points.
I countered with “squid”: 30 points on a double-word score.
“Had.” “Hap.” “Wipe.” “Ref.”
Early on, I was actually winning by a point or so.
“You’re doing very well,” Andy told me with an encouraging smile.
Then he hit me with the big guns.
All seven tiles. 70 points. My Scrabble ship began to founder – a hole shot through its hull.
Then came “antigens.”
Triple-word score. 80 points. Down she goes, boys.
Final tally: 453-285. At least he didn’t double my score.
Little did I know that my poker-faced opponent, roughly one-third my age, had a handful of invisible strategies.
First off, he moved quickly in the early rounds, saving time for big punches at the end.
Second, he paid as much attention to the letters he kept on his rack as he did the tiles he played. By holding on to good ones each turn, he never got stuck with a rack vowels – a pit I sank into twice.
“When I played ‘fava,’ I held onto T, I, N, G,” he explained. “You can make a lot of seven-letter words with I-N-G. That’s how I got ‘antigens.’ ”
More than that, Andy keeps an arsenal of words in his brain, remembering the ever-useful short ones such as “ki,” “ka” and “xu,” along with the rarely played torpedoes such as “lavisher” and “annalist.”
But the champ wasn’t going to let me leave feeling down-hearted, bound for the Scrabble dungeon.
“You played very well,” said Andy, the Cal Ripken nice-guy of word games. “You have a very affable personality and a good word knowledge. ‘Anon’ was a very nice play. And ‘towed’ was good – a 30-point word.”
As we parted, Andy called me his Scrabble Friend, a title I accept with “honor,” collecting 9 points.
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