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Scrabble star

COURTESY OF PATRICIA HOCKER, NATIONAL SCRABBLE ASSOCIATION

Amalan Iyengar hasn’t been playing competitive Scrabble all that long, but what’s important is that he plays smart.

He knows the power of a two-letter word, and he studies lists of seven-and-eight-letter words that can earn him a 50-point bonus for clearing his tile rack.

Strategies like that – along with considerable talent and lots of practice – helped Amalan, a freshman at East Chapel Hill High School, win the National Scrabble Championship for his skill division last month.

At the championship, held in Orlando, Fla., Amalan played 31 games over five days.

“I’d never played anything close to that before,” he said.

That’s a lot of Scrabble, but he said he didn’t feel tired until he came home and the adrenalin wore off.

“The excitement – I was looking forward to each new day – it just kept me going,” he said.

The tournament pits players against each other in person one at a time in games that allow each competitor no more than 25 minutes, total, for deliberation. Each game typically lasts about 45 minutes.

“If you can’t play fast, you just can’t play,” Amalan said.

Many of his opponents in Division 4 play were adults, though the runner-up was also around his age and there were a few older teenagers in the group. That’s typical of tournament play, Amalan said, adding it helps that “people in the Scrabble community, they’re all really nice.”

“Basically,” he said, “respect comes with talent, and not with age, because most people know that some of the best players are under 18 or 20.”

Ever since joining the school Scrabble Club in fifth grade, Amalan has found that the best practice comes from playing against other people, preferably face-to-face. These days, he plays two or three games a week with a club in Durham, and he supplements that with online games that push him to think fast and also help him analyze whether he made the best move possible given what’s on the board and what letter tiles he has on his rack.

“I find that actually shuffling the letters around on a real rack helps me find more words,” he said. “It’s just easier to visualize on a real board. So I tend to do better playing real games than I do online.”

Competing for a cause

When played in real life, Scrabble can also do some real good in the real world. With help from David Klionsky, the coach of his fifth-grade Scrabble club and director of the Triangle Scrabble Club, Amalan started a fundraiser three years ago to benefit the Duke Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation department.

“I went to them with the idea of a Scrabble tournament, and over the last few years we’ve raised $10,000 for it,” said Amalan. “I hope we can continue doing it for many years to come.”

The Duke program has personal significance for Amalan, who has a rare blood disorder called Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome that makes him prone to bleeding easily. His parents encouraged him to try competitive Scrabble in part because it’s too risky for him to play sports.

He likes to play Frisbee and basketball, casually, and he enjoys chess, too, though there hasn’t been much time for it since he started concentrating on Scrabble, Amalan said.

“I’ve liked words for a long time. And I like the strategy element of the game, and I have a natural feel for it, and I enjoy studying. So putting all of those things together is really Scrabble.”

He’s already looking forward to next year’s national championship, and he’s working to rise into a division for higher-ranking players.So he’s back to practicing and polishing his technique – when time allows.

“I’m going to have to work out something where I can study and do well at school now that the year has started,” he said.

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