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More than 60 Scrabble players checked into the Meridian hotel by the Dead Sea earlier this month, but only their non-playing spouses enjoyed the mud and the spa.
For three days, Scrabble enthusiasts from all over Israel had their heads down over their boards, anxiously totaling their scores and huddling together during mealtimes to discuss the results.
Many a Scrabble spouse complained of lack of sleep as their partner paced the bedroom all night agonizing over the mistakes they made and the lost opportunities.
There are Scrabble clubs (in English) throughout Israel but the Jerusalem group, 50 on an average night, is the largest such club in the world. Tel Aviv has a register of 40 players with 20-25 average at meetings, while Haifa, once a strong club, has dwindled to a few who play each other in their homes or keep in practice on the computer. Those who did attend this tournament are anxious to revive the Haifa club and want to hear from other players in the north.
This Sixth Annual Scrabble-by-the Sea, organized by Tel Aviv player Evan Cohen, alternates with another annual tournament at the end of the summer in memory of Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum, who died in December 2002 at age 46. Orbaum set up the Jerusalem club, which continues to inspire players to this day.
Madeleine Wetherhorn, who plays in the Expert Division, and her husband Aryeh, who came second in the Premier Division, live in Gush Etzion and travel regularly to the Jerusalem group. They are among the founder members, having responded to an advertisement by Orbaum in 1984.
Ami Tsubery, organizer of the memorial tournaments and a champion of the Jerusalem club, often talks about how Orbaum helped him when he first joined in 1986. Israeli-born Tsubery, 47, lives in Beit Zayit and is a professional translator specializing in movie subtitles. He studied English literature and linguistics at Tel Aviv University.
During further studies in Denmark, he saw a group of Nigerians playing Scrabble in English. "They were very good, and I started to play with them," he says.
On his return to Jerusalem, he went to the Scrabble club but was intimidated by the expert native English-speakers.
"Sam welcomed me, encouraged me, invited me home to give me tips and tactics and I found I could play well," says Tsubery. "My first tournament was in Turkey - there were 20 of us from Israel, and Sam was the champion," he says.
After Orbaum died, Tsubery took over the organization of the annual tournaments and renamed them in memory of his mentor.
There are many Scrabble players in Israel whose mother tongue is not English. "They may not always pronounce words correctly, but they read a lot," notes Tsubery.
The organizer of the Dead Sea tournament, 37-year-old former South African Evan Cohen, began playing with his grandmother and a neighbor and joined the Tel Aviv group when he was 19.
"Tel Aviv is very different from Jerusalem. The players are younger and more secular. Most are English speakers and improve their skills by playing on the Internet," says Cohen.
Prior to this year he was assisted by Jayne Robinson, who passed away three weeks before this tournament.
Scrabble players may be fiercely competitive, but these tournaments are run in an atmosphere of goodwill and humor, good manners and ethical playing.
The Competitive Division trophy was awarded in Robinson's honor, as was the prize for the best GLOMP. This term for a phony word was coined by Robinson after hearing Cohen's experiences at a world championship in London.
"I had no vowels, but there was an open 'O' and I placed GL and MP round them. I thought I had found a British slang word but was challenged and lost the game. I felt such a glomp!"
Of course, every player aims for a Bingo - a seven-letter word. The prize for the most original Bingo went to Joel Bailey for UINTATE; Maxine Tsvaigrach formed the nine-letter word DEVIATING; and Miriam Erez, who also came first in the Competitive Division, used a blank to substitute a Y to form PYRAMID.
The champion of the tournament was Jack Eichenbaum from the US, who was passing through on vacation in Israel.
The History of Scrabble
Architect Alfred Mosher Butts of Poughkeepsie, New York, lost his job during the Great Depression of 1931. He was passionate about games but felt that dice games depended too much on luck, and chess was too highbrow.
By the end of the year he had developed a game that was partly luck and partly skill, which he called Lexico.
The game was played without a board, and players scored on the basis of the length of the words formed. Butts calculated the frequency and value of each letter of the alphabet by reading newspapers meticulously. In this way, he worked out how many duplicates there should be of each letter to make the game challenging.
In 1933 he applied for a patent, but Lexico was rejected. He then submitted it to the two largest games manufacturers in the US - Milton Bradley and Parker - Brothers but neither showed any interest.
During the next five years he made nearly 200 games that were sold or given to friends, but with no commercial success.
The popularity of crosswords inspired Butts to combine the letters with a playing board on which words could be joined. Lexico became New Anagrams, Alph, Criss-Cross then Criss-Crosswords.
He made the first boards with his architectural drafting equipment, and the tiles were hand-lettered and glued to plywood. At first the opening word was placed near the top left corner of the board.
Not all Butts's ideas were changed. The 15x15 square board and seven-tile rack were original features, as were the distribution and values of the letters that remain unchanged since 1938.
Again and again, the games were turned down by the patent board and games manufacturers.
Butts returned to being an architect, and World War II prevented any further work on the game until 1948, when it attracted the interest of James Brunot, who manufactured the game on behalf of Butts.
Brunot simplified the rules and decided to rename the game. In December 1948, copyright was granted with the Scrabble trademark. The Brunots set up shop in their living room and turned out 18 games a day. During the first year of production, they assembled and sold 2,251 sets, losing $450 in the process.
In 1952, on the verge of bankruptcy, Brunot took a break but was so deluged by orders that he moved to larger premises and his sales soared. That year, Jack Strauss, chairman of Macy's New York, played Scrabble during a vacation. He asked his games department to stock and promote it.
During 1953, some 6,000 sets a week were sold and Brunot could not keep up with the demand, so he licensed production to Selchow and Righter, who had previously rejected Butts's proposal.
Scrabble was launched in the UK by Spears and Sons in 1953, and in 1968 Spears acquired world rights outside the US and Canada. In 1986, Selchow and Righter sold the American rights, and 53 years after Scrabble was born it was taken over by Milton Bradley, who had previously turned it down.
In 1994, Spears was acquired by Mattel Inc, the world's largest game and toy manufacturer.
The first world championship was held in London in 1991. Brunot died in 1984 but Butts, who died in 1993 at the age of 93, lived to see the championships.
Scrabble is now played in 121 countries, and 100 million sets have been sold in 29 languages. Among passionate players are Queen Elizabeth II, Mel Gibson, Sting, Keanu Reeves and Joan Collins.
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For Scrabble clubs in Israel, visit http://users.actcom.co.il/