Sunday, October 31, 1999

'Scrabble' master competing this week in world championship

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Scrabble champion John Luebkemann snapped the cookie and pulled out the fortune: “You will inherit some money or a small piece of land.”

        “That's 68 points, if there are no premium squares.”

        That's how well Mr. Luebkemann knows his Scrabble tiles. Word scores. Whole sentences. At a glance. From memory.

        He also knows it this well: Wednesday through next Sunday, he'll compete in the 1999 World Scrabble Championship in Melbourne, Australia.

        It's his third trip to the Worlds: He finished 34th in New York in '93 and 49th in Washington in '97. He finished 13th and 10th In the last two U.S. Championships.

        This year he expects to finish “somewhere between 30 and 50” in a field of 100 competitors from 40 countries. But John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association, says he's being modest: “He's good and he's quick. The top 20 or even top 10 wouldn't surprise me.”

Using the "Q'
        Not bad for a Clermont County actuary who lives and dies by numbers.

        “It's true, but you know, literary people aren't always the best players. They don't grasp the strategy and the analysis that make up most of the game.”

        Strategy? Analysis? Don't you just draw seven tiles and hope you get a U to go with that Q?

        “Qat, an evergreen, 13 points.

        “Qi, a life force, like chi, 11 points.

        “I know of 20 to 30 Q words that don't need a U. If you have the U, try "quietly' — 19 points.

        “At the tournament level, I'd say it's 20 percent luck and 80 percent skill, strategy and analysis.”

        Mr. Luebkemann knows about strategy. At 35 and single, he's a certified tournament director who has been playing Scrabble since age 8 and competing in tournaments since age 20.

        But this tournament is a trip he's looking forward to with special gusto. Armed with a stipend from Scrabble manufacturer Hasbro, he's taking two week's vacation and his sister Carol on the 23-hour flight.

        “The tournament runs five days. The rest of the time, we're going to see Australia.”

In training
        Now he's in training. Listening to his favorite pop-country and Christian CDs, sitting in front of one of his four Scrabble boards, including a custom designed black Plexiglas job with his name engraved in gold, digging in to his seven bags of custom designed tiles, coming up with exotic words.

        Xu, a unit of Vietnamese currency.

        “I use a computer program called Video Flashcards. It throws out scrambled words and I unscramble. AKT, for example, unscrambles to KAT — an evergreen, same as Qat. I do that a lot.”

        That's not all the computer's good for: There are four skill levels in the Scrabble hierarchy: Expert, intermediate, competitive and recreational.

        Thanks to the information highway, competitors zillions of miles apart can sit in their living rooms, square off at virtual Scrabble and hone their skills.

        “It's not the same as sitting face to face with a timer going, but it helps when you're getting ready for tournament play.”

        Ah, those tournaments.

        To get to the Worlds, a player must be a national champion or have wracked up at least 1,900 points in tournaments sanctioned by the Scrabble Association. Won-loss records and the skill level of the opponent determine the number of points awarded. Thirteen U.S. players made the grade this year.

        Once at the Worlds, every player plays at least 24 games. Points are awarded for wins, opponent's skill level and margin of victory. In the final round, the top two scorers play a best of five round.

        “It's not like home. We play one-on-one with a 50-minute limit per game. There's no limit on your turn, but each player has 25 minutes and how he uses it is up to him. Once your timer goes off, you're finished.”

        One thing he can do is play several people at once. To prove it, he's working on a fund-raiser with the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati where he would take on five competitors at a time, running from table to table popping out words like qanat (tunnels, 14 points).

        “It's going to have to be people whose egos can take a beating.”

        Mighty confident, 'eh?

        “No, no, I don't mean to sound like some kind of elitist snob. It's more a matter of being focused. I have to be. I'm going up against the best in a few weeks and won't have time for nerves or self-doubt. Only focus.”

        Scrabble players looking to improve their game can take a few tips from expert John Luebkemann:

        • Learn your 2s. Those would be a batch of uncommon two-letter words — not “if” or anything like that — that can bail you out of some mighty tight situations. “I have a list of about 90,” he says.

        • Plan ahead. Pay attention to the vowel-consonant balance in your rack when making words. Be sure to leave yourself a few of each after making a word.

        • Watch out. Never put a vowel next to a premium (double or triple point) square.

        • Watch the board. You already know what words are down there and what letters you have in your rack. Careful observation can give you a loose idea of what your opponent has.


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