Young local word whizzes outline their path to Scrabble stardom

It doesn’t take much time chatting with Jackson Smylie and Alex Li to realize they’re no ordinary Grade 8 kids. The students from Scarborough spend a great amount of time studying words most people would never use or even know exist.

And for good reason: the pair won the National Scrabble Championship in Orlando, Fla. last month, earning big time respect among their tile-compiling peers, a $10,000 prize and an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”.

Weeks after their impressive victory Jackson, 13, and Alex, 14, alluded to one of those old sayings about the journey being more important than the destination.

“I found the whole experience, like when we won, surprisingly devoid of excitement,” Jackson recalled.

“It felt empty. It’s done. What’s next?” Alex said. “There’s nothing furthermore to expect and everything we’d done prior to what we achieved have all been building up towards that moment.”

The boys earned their entry to the American competition with a victory at the Toronto Scrabble tournament in March. Two of their schoolmates also competed in Orlando and placed fourth — their only loss was to Jackson and Alex.

The performance in Florida also got them on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier this month where they battled the host on a giant swiveling Scrabble board. The young Canucks ended up beating Kimmel handily. He gave them the iPads they were planning to buy with their prize money so they could each invest the entire $5,000 they’d won.

Watch the kids’ appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” here and here.

Jackson and Alex said the victory and the “intense glory” didn’t come easy. The kids pore over the Scrabble Dictionary; they test themselves with flashcards; employ alphagrams and mnemonics; discuss strategy and, of course, play.

In one online Scrabble game, Jackson said he beat Mike Barron, the author of the “Scrabble Wordbook”. Jackson started playing the board game in Grade 3 with his mom.

The amount of studying and the material being studied could make a novice’s head spin. The boys have memorized thousands of words — many of them obscure and reap huge points in competitive play.

While rigorous study is important to improve his game, Jackson said he knows it’s important to have limits.

“No one who is so good at Scrabble that they’ve memorized the dictionary can be socially smart,” he said.

Jackson and Alex didn’t know each other very well before they met in their school Scrabble club, started three years ago by Grade 7 teacher Walt Morose at Jack Miner Senior Public School.

“I’ve been exceeded by my students, which is the goal, right?” the proud instructor said.

Morose said he found out Jackson and Alex won the Orlando tournament when he checked his email while in line at the grocery store.

“I was so excited,” he said. “I must have made a lot of noise and had to explain myself.”

Jackson said he studies his flashcards between 30 and 45 minutes a night, noting he retains more information studying every day instead of cramming for a match.

“I usually do 10 or 20 cards in a day,” he said.

Alex shows off pages containing a dizzying array of letter combinations: the basic two and three-letter words — essentials for any Scrabble player; a list of words containing the so-called power tiles “JKQXZ”; vowel and consonant dumps; more than 1,000 seven-letter “bingo” words — players earn a 50-point bonus for dumping all of their tiles in one play, and ‘q without u’ words

“Two letter words are what you have to learn in order to basically raise your game score by 50 [points],” Alex said.

The pair used a disputed fake word — carnate — during the final game in Orlando. The word went unchallenged by the opposing team, the former reigning champs from New Hampshire. Psyching out competitors with plays that could prompt a challenge is part of advanced Scrabble strategy.

Jackson, who hopes to one day become an architect or industrial designer, said he plans to compete in the adult National Scrabble Championship in 2012 or 2013. He’s also preparing for a tournament in Albany, N.Y. in July.

Here are some of the championship team’s favourite plays from various matches:

SLEAZOID – for 284 points, Jackson said.

THINKERS – “With the ‘K’ on the double and a triple-triple … 230 points,” Alex said.

JERRIDS – (from the Orlando tournament) “It was a very elegant play with the ‘J’ on the double letter going both ways … and also Jerrids on the triple word,” Alex said. That play scored 134 points.

WIELDERS – “In 2010 we scored 176 points for WIELDERS and that earned us the high award prize of the tournament,” Jackson said.

Jackson offered some basic tips for the novice player who wants to take their game to the next level.

-Learn the two-letter words: “The two-letter words to a Scrabble player are like the hammer to a construction worker.”

-Use blanks and ‘S’ sparingly, only for large scores.

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