Word Up

Josh Kassel is a director of National Scrabble Association Club No. 565. That sounds really official, doesn't it? The club meets every Thursday from 5-10 p.m. at Denny's, 2630 E. Valencia Road. Club No. 565 is a tournament-play club; for those of you who think that's too intense, there's another local NSA club--No. 303--that meets for casual Scrabble play at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday at IHOP, 5101 E. Grant Road. Kassel--a 33-year Tucson native who is an engineer for America Online--also serves as the webmaster of tucsonscrabble.com, the Web site for the two clubs. Kassel's been part of the NSA for about 10 1/2 years, though he says he's been playing Scrabble all his life. We recently chatted about the weekly meetings at Denny's and other Scrabble-related topics.

I noticed the motto you have for the tucsonscrabble.com Web site: "Stop staring at our rack." Where did you come up with that?

I change that every once in a while with something clever. The last one was, "Where the elite meet to spell m-e-a-t." I just change it every once in a while.

How many people usually show up for the weekly meeting at Denny's?

About 10-15. There's every variety of person you could think of. There's every age--our youngest is in the mid-late 20s, and the oldest is pushing 80. They come from all walks of life. We have engineers, a retired CIA person, an entomologist and teachers.

Why Denny's?

Because they put up with us. Also, more practically, some of our players are from Sierra Vista, Sonoita, the Patagonia area--and this tends to be a little closer for them. Some of our players drive 100 miles roundtrip to play every week. It's very addicting.

What makes it so addictive?

The level of competition. It's a very strategic game. Also, there's an element of luck involved, and that makes it interesting. There's a mathematical aspect, but it also gives attention to people's love of words and language.

What's the highest word score you've ever gotten?

The one I can remember is 165 points. The word was "cherries." That was played up at a tourney in Phoenix last year. I hit two triple word scores at the same time, meaning it was nine times the point value, plus a 50-point word bonus. That's called a "triple triple." It's very unusual.

Why does it cost $3 to play each week?

It's $3 for club dues, but first-time players are exempted. We return all of that, save 25 percent of it, in the form of cash prizes. We might have a prize for high game of the evening, or an award for a "high and dry"--the best word score with a word that contains the letters D-R-Y. Plus, there are different jackpots that accumulate over the sessions.

Do you bring in a lot of business for Denny's?

We do. Again, they put up with us, and for that, we ask the participants to order dinner and tip our wonderful servers well.

You say they "put up" with you. Do you get rowdy sometimes?

No. A long time ago, I worked as a waiter at a Denny's, so from experience, I know that waiting on a large group can be a pain.

What's your favorite Denny's entrée? Mine is Moons Over My Hammy.

Probably breakfast, the fajita skillet.

Has anybody ever gotten excited and accidentally swallowed a tile?

Fortunately, this hasn't happened yet. Also fortunately, we're all trained on the Heimlich maneuver.

According to your Web site, your month's won-loss record as of this interview is 1-3. Are you off to a bad start?

Yeah. I haven't been playing so well. Hopefully, that will improve.

What's wrong?

Too much is going on in my life right now to study.

You study for Scrabble?


How do you study?

We study word lists; we look at high-probability letters. We also use different systems. One is called "anamonics." The way it works is, you look for stem words that you can add on to (and re-arrange) in order to create higher-scoring words.

How much time do you usually spend studying?

I try to spend 20 minutes a day. More advanced players study 4-5 hours a day.

What's your biggest Scrabble tournament win?

First place. I think I won $350. It was at a tournament up in Phoenix.

You're married. Are there any Scrabble groupies? Do they ever become a problem?

Mercifully, no. The Scrabble dating scene is heavily weighted in favor of the women; there are more men who are players. If you're a beautiful woman, the sky's the limit.