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J-X-Q-Z: Add a Couple of Vowels and Scrabble Champ Can Probably Make A Word

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
October 29, 2008

Kate Fukawa-Connelly knows all the two and three letter words in the English language. And all the five letters ones. And, those that have more vowels than consonants—up to five vowels a word. Oh, and she also knows about 10,000 seven and eight letter words.

That’s what it takes to become a Scrabble expert, a ranking she attained last year after getting into tournament play in 2003. She’d played the board game when she was growing up but it wasn’t until five years ago that she joined her first Scrabble club. Now, the coordinator of the Rising Scholars Program at UNH plays in one or two tournaments a month.

“There are officially sanctioned tournaments every weekend somewhere in the country,” Fukawa-Connelly says. “It may not be in the immediate area but there’s always one somewhere.”

She also plays regularly with an expert rated player from Maine. And, with her husband, UNH math professor Tim Fukawa-Connelly, whom she describes as indulging her.

Fukawa-Connelly credits Stefan Fatsis’ book “Word Freak,” which explores the world of competitive Scrabble, for igniting an interest in the game among younger people. In addition to enjoying the competition, Fukawa-Connelly says she’s a fan because the game promotes literacy and teamwork. And because anyone can play.

Seasoned players have their own boards. Tiles are silkscreened rather than wooden so no one can finger the squares and know what letter it is by the feel. Tournaments have three entry categories: beginner, intermediate and expert. Play is within divisions, against similarly rated players.

“It’s meant to be competitive but a beginner isn’t going to be put with someone like me,” says Fukawa-Connelly, who has an average score of 400 points a game and a high of 620. She also gets at least two bingos—when all seven letters are used in one turn, for an additional 50 points—per game.

Rankings can change with every tournament. Fukawa-Connelly says one really good tournament elevated her to her current expert status. She mentions an MIT student who achieved the rating almost immediately after he began playing officially when he was 16. Rankings are based on points earned from tournament play not from the number of games won.

Each tournament has an entry fee of between $70 and $100 for 12 to 15 games. Almost all of the fee goes toward prize money. The current top player has won more than $150,000. Fukawa-Connelly’s take to date is $2,500.

 “A lot of it’s probability,” she says of being good at the word game. “A lot of the top players are mathematicians. It’s not just that an English professor would be good. It’s nice to have a good vocabulary but it doesn’t mean you’ll become a pro. You have to have an analytical mind.”

That means strategizing and thinking four or five turns ahead, being aware of how your play might benefit your opponent. Building a Scrabble vocabulary is also key. Fukawa-Connelly studies routinely, using flash cards almost every day to test her memory.

“When you’re playing, you have to have a balance between what you’re setting up and what’s left on your rack,” Fukawa-Connelly says. “You look at the score you’ll get, what you’re leaving on the rack, switching between offensive and defensive. But still, there’s quite a bit of luck involved. You have to be able to make a word with the letters you get.”

She’s been to the National Scrabble Championships once. There, more than 600 people play 25-plus games each in five days. The event takes place every two years. Competitors are everything from accountants to concert pianists who, like Fukawa-Connelly, share a passion for the games.

“I’m a big hobby person—I’m a knitter; I spin my own yarn; I like to cook,” Fukawa-Connelly says. “I’ve always tried to keep a balance between work and recreation. Scrabble gives me that. And it’s a very open community. That’s one of the things I like best; it really is a community.”

For a list of upcoming Scrabble tournaments visit

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