June 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

KIrk Troutman and Jim Goeken, both age 67, sit across from each other on a Thursday afternoon at A.P. Swanson Library. A rotating Scrabble board lays between them on a table.

This Scrabble board is one of 150 million that have been sold world-wide, making it the best-selling board game in the world. The game, invented in 1938, is played like a crossword puzzle. Players place tiles on the board vertically or horizontally to create words.

This may all be old news for you, being that more than one-third of all U.S. households own a Scrabble game. What you may not know, however, is how Troutman and Goeken come up with their words.

The term ZA sits on the board. It is a slang term for pizza, and a relatively new addition to the official Scrabble dictionary.

Troutman sets down QAID for 27, also gaining points for ED from a previously-played E. On his next play, he sets down EXPO next to the term ROOK, ending against the word BUCK. This creates the terms RE, OX, OP, and BUCKO along with the play of EXPO.

It’s BUCKO that causes his partner to stop and think. Not to think of BUCKO as a word, but whether or not it is an acceptable play. Acceptable, that is, according to the official Scrabble rules. He writes it on the corner of his score sheet, but does not contest it.

These players memorize words, specifically word patterns. There are 106 two-letter formations acceptable according to the official Scrabble rules, and the competitive players have memorized them all. They have also memorized three letter words, four letter words, etc. Ask them to define QAID, and most of them won’t be able to, but they will be able to tell you it is one of the acceptable Q words that do not need to be followed by a U.

In addition to the Thursday gatherings, the two are members of the Omaha Scrabble Club, which meets twice a month on Tuesday nights. The club has lately grown so large that, in mid-April, they moved to the Ralston library for the third Tuesday of the month.

Troutman is the organizer of the club where people of all ages and all skill levels gather to play their favorite game. Some players obtain an average living-room player’s score of around 200-250 points, but others may score into competition levels of more than 300 points.

Bev Chaney, age 68, is a retired insurance compliance analyst and administrative worker playing at the library on this Thursday. She started playing three years ago with Goeken, whom she knew through mutual friend Jim Bechtal.

“I just play for fun,” she says nonchalantly, smiling.

She studies word lists sometimes, but she doesn’t make a habit of it. She comes to be among friends, and play a game she has loved for a long time.

Her partner at this time is Brian Zdan, 62. If only that wasn’t a proper name. It would garner 13 points without any double or triple spots on the board. Zdan began playing with the club in November 2014 because he read about the small group meeting in the Dundee Memorial Park newsletter and thought, “why not?”

Back at Troutman and Goeken’s table, Troutman plays NIGHT down from OPE, creating OPEN and hitting a coveted triple-word score for 37 points. A pyramid of words sits so tightly on the top right side of the board the pharaohs would keep dry for thousands of years…or maybe just the 60 minutes of play.

“You dog,” Goeken whispers in a combination of “great play” and “damn you!”

Goeken plays CAB down to join with ROOK, also creating BROOK, for 24 points.

The wood tiles that come with a standard Scrabble set aren’t used here. These players not only use a rotating board, they use special tiles that lock onto the squares of the board.

But the real specialty about these tiles isn’t the fact that they lock. The original wood tiles are made with raised letters. These are made so the letters aren’t raised. With the competition-acceptable letters, one can’t feel around in the bag for the two coveted blank tiles.

Goeken has recently used a blank as a G, playing SELLIN(G) for 84 points. That’s 34 points for the word and 50 for the bingo, or playing all seven tiles at once. Below that, he has also played the bingo S(T)ANGED for 65 points.

Two blank spaces in the bag. Two bingos.

“When I get a blank I almost always try to get a bingo,” Goeken admits.

Troutman plays YIN next to AERIE, also making YE. He waves his hand in a “meh” gesture.

“11,” he says.

Goeken plays PEH for 11 and shrugs. Huh? Troutman explains that any play in serious Scrabble that garners no more than 10 points per play is considered average.

As the hour ends, Goeken has accumulated 348 points. Troutman has accumulated 387 points. BUCKO, incidentally, is an acceptable word. The pair will study the board, figure out where to earn more points, and meet again in a week…same time, same place, same game. Different tiles, different words.

Visit meetup.com/Omaha-Competitive-Scrabble-Meetup to learn more.

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