Word play

The guy on the other end of the table scans me as I study the board. He's looking for a "tell," a signal that will give away my secrets. So I give him one of my phony moves before reaching for a tile - then, for good measure, double-back and pick up another one, while I keep my face as serene looking as I can. It's a rough life, this competing on the road - and I've still got three more games to play tonight! If you thought Scrabble was a calm game played by elderly tea drinkers, think again. The world of competitive Scrabble play is rough and tumble, with backstabbing competition from wannabe champs who will stop at nothing in order to keep you under their thumb. Grr. As I am finding out firsthand. It's another one of my moneymaking scheme-dreams come to life, you see - but with this one, I can hear the "ka-ching" (is that a kosher Scrabble word?) of big money! Or is that just the sound of flicked wooden tiles onto the Scrabble board that I hear? The truth is, I've become obsessed with that flicking noise since I joined the "circuit" in an attempt to make it to the Scrabble Big Time - the 2006 National Scrabble Association championship (http://www2.scrabble-assoc.com/) with its $25,000 Big Prize. That might not sound like Big Time money - the truth is, it will just about pay off the money I've been spending in local, regional and divisional Scrabble tourney registry fees playing the "circuit" (http://tinyurl.com/mqzz5). But $25k is chicken feed compared to the endorsement deals! If I can become world champ, I can become the next poster boy for the "Reading is fun-damental" campaign, not to mention getting my photo on boxes of "brain food" like cod-liver oil. My agent has even talked to the Wheaties people! They say they love the idea, because it will encourage the non-jock crowd to buy their cereal! But it has been a long, hard road. Hopefully, though, I'll be rolling in dough - and when I do, you can be sure I won't forget my friends at the Internet Scrabble Club (http://www.isc.ro/) - where the friendly games I played with people from all over the world definitely helped me hone my skills. It's rare to find a good freeware application for Scrabble, which after all is a popular, copyrighted game that you pay a decent amount of money for in stores. The ISC is an on-line Scrabble club with thousands of members where you can play for free - game board and tiles included. The way they get around the copyright issue is by calling their game WordBiz, but it's quite similar to the real thing. You download and install WordBiz and register - and then you enter the world of on-line competitive Scrabble, where you can begin honing your skills for "the circuit." In competitive Scrabble, your rating number is your passport to riches, and WordBiz starts new users out with a basic rating (my opening rating was 548). A rating of around 900 is average, while expert players rate around 1800. Games are played based on ISC dictionaries, which come in several languages, including US or UK English, French, Italian and Romanian. You can choose random games or seek out games with players who have similar ratings, for specified or open-ended amounts of time (there are an average of about 1,000 or so games on the ISC server at any one time, so you're certain of finding a match that fits your profile). If you're interested in seeing what makes other players tick, WordBiz has a very cool "observe" feature, where you can zero in on a game at any level and watch it being played in real time! You get to see each player's tiles as they take their turns, and you can even "whisper" suggestions or assistance to players, or "kibitz" with other observers about which player is doing what right or wrong. Commands (http://www.isc.ro/en/help/commands.html) are inserted into a command line box on the WordBiz screen, and there is also a chat feature, where you can reach specific players or join in an open discussion. Contrary to popular belief, being an expert at using "silver dollar words" (as Mrs. Jordan in the fifth grade referred to them) is not the key to doing well at Scrabble, on-line or off - although it helps. Much more useful is versatility in word compounding, a good handle on shorter (up to six letter) words and knowing what to do with unusual combinations of consonants and vowels. For useful word lists, check out http://www.cyberonic.com/~bigdoggy/lists.html and http://www.oneletterwords.com/. And for all the news on local Scrabble action, surf to http://tinyurl.com/pmgm4, http://tinyurl.com/hv6fk and http://tinyurl.com/jjtsq (the latter being the home page of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club, honoring the late Sam Orbaum of The Jerusalem Post). Between WordBiz and local or international competitions, you too might be able to get on the Scrabble gravy train. Ever wanted to be on a Wheaties box? Here's your chance! Ds@newzgeek.com