WELCOME GUEST  |  LOG IN
Lawn Doctor, Hamptons, Lawn Care, Mosquito Control, Tick Control. Lawn Maintenance
27east.com

Story - News

Apr 10, 2019 10:41 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Bridgehampton's 'Spelling Bees' Are Taking Scrabble To The Next Level: Nationals

Members Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreational Center Scrabble team prepare for the North American School Scrabble Championship in Philadelphia later this month. DANA SHAW
Apr 10, 2019 10:41 AM

The pizza was delivered at around 7 p.m., and the mouth-watering smell instantly filled the small room in the main building of the Bridgehampton Child Care Center.The six children gathered around the table must have been hungry, but they barely seemed to notice it. They were too busy talking about Scrabble.

Kathy Hummel flipped through a stack of papers, reviewing the handwritten records of high-scoring words that each of the fourth- and sixth-graders under her tutelage had played in recent Scrabble matches against each other at their after-school practice sessions at the center. The team, which includes six players from Bridgehampton and East Hampton, meets every Monday, from November through May, and is currently preparing for the North American School Scrabble Championships in Philadelphia on April 26 through 28.

The team is called “The Bridgehampton Spelling Bees,” a nod to the town’s high school mascot, the Killer Bees. They wore matching black T-shirts with their team name on the front, and, on the back, the phrase: “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an ‘I’”—the last letter shown as a Scrabble tile.

The Spelling Bees are in their third year of existence at the center and are coached by Ms. Hummel, who also coaches Scrabble teams in the Hampton Bays School District, something she’s done for nearly 20 years. At the elementary and junior high level, players compete in pairs, graduating to one-on-one play only when they enter high school.

The duos on each team often come up with their team names—Christian Pinckney and Zach Mitchell (who was not there on Monday night) call themselves the “Scrabble Warriors.” Flipping through pages of the packet, Ms. Hummel praised that pair for playing the word “hail” for 24 points, and “quit” for 33 points in recent matches. She also gave them credit for “hooking on” to the word “dull,” making it “duller,” and playing one of those obscure two-letter words—in this case, “qi”—for 20 points.

Sisters Kaylee and Ashley Munoz opened one game with the word “ax” for 18 points, and also made use of high-point letters H and V in the word “hive,” while also using almost every letter on the rack with the word “subway.” Aiyanna Spears and Steven Tlapanco played “ghost,” and earned 33 points for the word “zen,” while also hooking onto the word “rack,” making it “racket.”

The six players at practice on Monday night, all ages 10 or 11, behaved like any children their ages would. Moments of quiet concentration were frequently interrupted by bursts of giggles; there was plenty of squirming in seats, and tiles fell to the floor more than once. Ms. Hummel had to gently, and at times firmly, remind them to stay on task and keep their noise level down.

But after taking a few minutes to become comfortable with newcomers in the room, they all managed to convey their feelings about a game that has become more than a game to them.

Participating on a competitive Scrabble team has opened new doors for the students, and done more than just increase their vocabulary or give them something to pass the hours after school aside from scrolling through their phones. A trip to Connecticut earlier in the month for a tournament meant the first-ever ferry ride for some players, and they’ve met and become friendly with children their ages from across the country.

“I like meeting different teams and learning different words,” Aiyanna said when asked about her favorite part of being in the club. She is the most veteran member of the group, the only current player on the team who has competed at nationals. She exudes a quiet kind of confidence, and is quick to list several words that are proper nouns but also have a different meaning, which allows them to be used; “Joe,” for instance, as in a “cup of joe.”

Her teammate, Steven, comes off initially as shy but has a mischievous smile and is also quick to crack jokes. He brings up the time he and Aiyanna thought they had a “bingo”—a seven-letter word, meaning they’d use every tile on their rack—but it didn’t work out.

“One time, we were going to play the word “newborn,” but we had no space on the board,” he said, before adding, with dramatic flair: “And I almost cried.” Ashley and Kaylee could barely contain their laughter.

Christian is soft-spoken but serious and thoughtful when speaking about the game. He said Monday night’s game was a good one for one particular reason. “I was happy about this game because we used almost the entire bag,” he said. “That means we know a lot of words.”

Ms. Hummel pointed out that it also means they used their time efficiently. In Scrabble competitions, and at practice, each match lasts 50 minutes. The players use chess clocks, with each team allotted 25 minutes to play. They can take as much time as they want to make an individual move, but time management is a big part of the strategy for the game. Ms. Hummel said she tries to encourage them to make a play within three minutes. The point value of any leftover tiles on the rack at the end is subtracted from that team’s score.

Anyone who has ever played Scrabble—which is almost everyone—knows that the game combines luck and skill. But preparing to play Scrabble competitively reveals the immense amount of strategy and preparation involved in the game, even at the elementary and junior high levels.

And entering that world opens a window into the Scrabble “subculture,” as Ms. Hummel called it, that exists across the country, from children and teens who play in tournaments to older teens and adults playing in more highly competitive events, and even those who play religiously online.

From 1990 to 2000, Ms. Hummel worked for Williams and Company, the PR firm for the National Scrabble Association, which introduced her to that world. After leaving her job with the agency, she took over the team at Hampton Bays, which she has coached ever since, through years when there were only two or three players in the club, to years with more than 30. The Hampton Bays Scrabble Club has gone to nationals every year since 2003, something Ms. Hummel points out with pride.

Three years ago, Ms. Hummel was approached by Bonnie Cannon, the executive director of the child care center, asking her if she’d start a team there, and it’s become a success.

At nationals, each pair on the team will play eight games over the course of two days. Scrabble tournaments don’t follow an elimination format; instead, teams move up or down the ladder depending on how frequently they win.

In practice sessions, Ms. Hummel tries to drive home a number of points that will give her players the greatest chance at success. The importance of proper time management is key—for each minute a team goes over its time allotment, they lose 10 points, and as soon as the clock strikes one minute and one second, it’s another 10 points.

Tracking letters is allowed and encouraged. Ms. Hummel tells her players to keep an eye out for certain letters, and to stop wishing for letters that have all already been played; to understand the nuances of when they should or should not challenge an opponent’s play, if they think what they’ve put down isn’t a real word; and to take a word like “stop,” which doesn’t seem to fit on the board, and find an anagram, like “post” or “pots,” that will make that letter combination work.

Shanae Pritchard is the director of programs at the child care center. With one eye on the players and the moves they were making that day, she spoke about what the club has done for them, and the impact she’s seen it have.

“I think it’s really good for them,” she said. “It helps them to focus and learn new words. They have to work with each other as a team, and it’s just a really good game for them to work their minds.”

Ms. Pritchard added that traveling away from home and sitting face to face with strangers, trying to beat them in a game, has been a good experience for the children as well.

“When they go, it’s kind of, like, oh my goodness, we’re playing a bunch of different people! … and they’re nervous,” she explained. “But Aiyanna has been through it before, so she’s been able to tell them what it’s like. They play with people they’ve never met before and get over the nerves.”

Ms. Pritchard said she’s also seen the children gain confidence not only in their skills in the game but also in their ability to put that self-confidence on display.

“A few of them were a little quieter, and it’s helped them to be able to speak their voice a little more,” she said. “They get to know other kids and they come out of their shell a bit more.”

Ms. Hummel says that the benefits to playing Scrabble are varied and numerous for the kids. Aside from increasing their vocabulary and math skills, it also teaches them important interpersonal and social skills—not a small thing for children growing up in the digital age.

“You have to be pleasant and respectful, and communicate to people across from you,” she said. “You can play online, but it’s not the same.”

She added that, in her many years coaching the Scrabble teams at Hampton Bays, she’s seen kids follow their older siblings into obsession with the game, and has heard from former players that they even used the experience as something to write about on their college essays. Mostly, she’s been proud to see kids blossom as a result of playing the game.

“I’ve seen kids that don’t play sports or don’t shine in the classroom, but this is something that made sense to them, and they got to go to nationals,” she said. “They can say they represented their school and played against 300 other kids.”

Even when they are not at practice or a tournament, the players say that thoughts of Scrabble infiltrate their daily lives. Learning vocabulary words at school now has the added value of arming them with more words for the game; Aiyanna points out that Scrabble teaches them how to add and multiply quickly.

One thing all the players agreed on, which is perhaps the most important aspect of being in the club, is what it does for them socially. They say that working together with a teammate, meeting new peers at tournaments, and the interaction required to play the game together, including times when words are challenged, have helped them become much less shy.

It’s also just simply fun.

“At first, I thought Scrabble was boring,” Steven said. “But now it doesn’t seem like that.”

You've read 1 of 7 free articles this month.

Already a subscriber? Sign in

This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By MoronEliminator (194), Montauk on Apr 11, 19 5:27 PM