What’s the good word?
In her official North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA) photo, Sara Corbin of Brattleboro poses with her 212-point word “squatter,” visible in the upper-right-hand corner of the board.

What’s the good word?

One Brattleboro woman knows plenty of words, and deploys them well in the linguistic nerdfest known as the Scrabble championships

BRATTLEBORO — By day she is a warehouse worker, but her true passion lies with the moving of tiles on the Scrabble board.

Word lover and Brattleboro resident Sara Corbin has recently returned from the 2022 Scrabble Players Championship, held in late July in Baltimore, where her proudest moment was when she earned 212 points for the word “squatter.”

She positioned the tiles for that word on the top right-hand edge of the board, placing two onto triple-word-score squares and another onto a double-letter square.

By the time the tournament was over, Corbin had played 31 games, winning 16 of them.

Corbin, 60, has been playing Scrabble all her life socially. Ten years ago, she began playing in tournaments.

“I've done many one-day tournaments where we play six or seven games. And I've also played weekend tournaments in Saratoga, N.Y., and one in Lake George, N.Y.,” she says. “There, we play 15 games.”

How did Corbin go from playing at home to playing in tournaments?

“Several years ago, I was working at Amy's Bakery on Main Street when Ed Liebfried, who was living in Guilford at the time, came into the store and asked, 'Are you the Sara that likes to play Scrabble?'” she says. “He had heard from mutual friends that I enjoyed the game.”

The two have been friends ever since.

Liebfried began a Scrabble Club in Brattleboro, which held its own tournament locally. The club ran for about six years until Liebfried moved to Florida.

“This was my first national tournament,” Corbin says. “Ed told me long ago that a national is something everyone should try once, so I signed up.”

She describes the national tournament as “the premier event of the year.”

“All the top experts were there, but anyone can go,” says Corbin, who notes that players are assigned to one of four divisions based on skill, determined by their rating with the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA).

“Division One has the top experts in the world, and your rating determines whom you will be playing,” says Corbin. “When you are brand new, your rating will be determined at the end of the tournament based on the rating of the players you played. It's similar to the way chess is rated.”

Liebfried, who also attend this year's National Championship, is in Division Two with a rating of 1,671. Corbin's rating is 1,257, which at the National Tournament placed her in Division Three.

The two friends also enjoy playing each other online.

One of Corbin's favorite sites is the Internet Scrabble Club, where one can play in English, French, Romanian, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, or Polish. Anyone who registers is welcome to play, and there are also ways to observe other players' games. Corbin also enjoys playing on a newer site, Woogles.io.

A wordy history

Scrabble, like Monopoly, is a game that is a product of the Great Depression.

The inventor of the game, first known as Lexico, Alfred M. Butts of Rhinebeck, N.Y., was a jobless architect who enjoyed chess, crosswords, and jigsaw puzzles, according to his 1993 obituary in the St. Petersburg Times. Butts engineered his game “to be based on knowledge, strategy, and chance,” the obituary recounts. “He lined the original playing board into small squares and cut the 100 lettered wooden tiles by hand.”

For 20 years, Butts couldn't sell the game to any major game manufacturer. Eventually, a friend assumed ownership of the product, renamed it “Scrabble,” and began to market the game, which got its big break with its discovery by a Macy's department store executive.

The corporate ownership of the game - now in the hands of Hasbro in North America - bounced around for decades as Scrabble became an enduringly popular part of global culture. With sales of 100 million sets and the availability of versions online, Scrabble has become a hobby for people all over the world.

What defines a word?

At this year's national tournament - the first in-person National Championship since the beginning of the pandemic - 293 players from 10 countries took part. And there was another first: Hasbro agreed to remove all slurs from the game's official word list for tournament play.

The story of this rule change began in 2020, when the developer of a mobile app, Scrabble Go, had omitted a number of words from the game.

A subhead on an article on Slate by Stefan Fatsis, a Scrabble tournament enthusiast summed it up: “Big Scrabble's decision to eliminate offensive words has infuriated players like never before.”

In a decision that the North American Scrabble Players Association celebrated at the time, the developer agreed to replace the cleaned-up word list with the official 192,000-word dictionary that had long been the standard for competitive play, complete with sexist, racist, and profane vocabulary.

NASPA reversed its stance within one month in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the ascendance of the Black Lives Matter movement, which started a national conversation about race.

As a result, Fatsis wrote that “executives at NASPA, supported by some of its membership, were fighting to permanently remove from tournament Scrabble some of the very words they had just fought to gain access to.”

In response, Hasbro announced that NASPA would remove all slurs from its word list and that the company, by rewriting the game's rules, would “make clear that slurs are not permissible in any form of the game.”

This decision was divisive, and in the end, 200 words that were once legal to play were banned from the board. This year's national tournament was the first time the new rules were included in tournament play.

According to Corbin, while “there wasn't a lot of discussion about this rule change at the tournament,” players found they could no longer use words they had used for years - and that caused some hiccups.

In one game, she said, she challenged her opponent on the use of an ethnic slur. When one player challenges another over whether a word is permitted or whether its spelling is accurate, they pause and type the word into a “challenge computer” to get an official ruling.

“It's easy to forget that once-valid words are not now valid,” says Corbin, who won the challenge.

“The event itself is lots of fun - like a convention, only people play Scrabble all day,” she says.

Over the five-day event, players would meet up after the gaming to have a few drinks or go out to dinner together. Evening events included a trivia contest and a concert. “And there was a screening of a new Scrabble movie,” Corbin says.

Is there a particular type of person who plays Scrabble?

“No, not really,” says Corbin. “Scrabble tends to draw people who like words or who always enjoyed the game. I'd say it is skewed towards older people because it is a hobby that isn't physical.”

But the tournament drew participants of all ages, she says.

“There were teenagers there who were quite good, as well as other players in their 80s,” says Corbin, who encourages anyone who enjoys the game to get involved in tournament play if they feel so inclined.

“Everyone is welcomed at these tournaments - beginners and experts alike,” she says.

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