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Scrabble prodigy Mack Meller minds his Ps and Qs, catches a few Zs, and is never at a loss for words.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2017
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Illustration by Dave Wheeler

In 2011, Mack Meller went to Stamford, Connecticut, for a Scrabble tournament. In the first round, as he was settling in, the tournament director interrupted play for an announcement. This was highly irregular. But the news warranted it: Joel Sherman, a forty-nine-year-old former world champion from the Bronx, had just finished a game with 803 points — a new world record in tournament play and the first time a tournament player had ever broken 800.

Meller and his opponent, having stopped their clocks (in tournament Scrabble each player is allotted twenty-five minutes to make all of his or her plays), placed their tiles face down and walked over to Sherman’s board. So did lots of other players. Meller couldn’t believe it. Eight hundred! That was Scrabble’s holy grail. Sherman had used all seven of his letters — called a “bingo” and good for fifty extra points — seven times.

It was a feat for the ages, but Sherman didn’t win the tournament. Meller did. He was eleven years old.

 

It’s Thursday night, and Meller, now a lanky, sociable seventeen-year-old Columbia first-year, leaves his room in Furnald Hall and heads for the subway. He carries his Scrabble traveling bag, which contains a round board, a chess clock, and a drawstring sack filled with exactly one hundred yellow plastic tiles. He gets out in Midtown and walks to a fifteen-story building at Lexington and East 58th, where, in a room on the twelfth floor, the Manhattan Scrabble Club holds its weekly rodeo.

“One of the great things about being at Columbia, aside from the outstanding academics and a diverse peer group, is the proximity to the club,” says Meller, who is the top-rated under-eighteen Scrabble player in North America, a distinction he has held since age twelve. “You get to play against some of the best players in the world.”

The Scrabble room is located inside the Honors Bridge Club. It has beige walls, waiting-room art, fluorescent lights. About twenty Scrabble players, women and men, sit at blond wooden tables, hunched over boards. There is an out-of-time quality to the scene, faint flavors of a bygone canasta night at Grossinger’s or the Concord. Meller, bright-eyed, mild-mannered, palpably well-adjusted, strikes the room’s most contemporary note. You might never guess that in this den of hardened, seen-it-all Scrabblers, Meller, not yet of voting age, is the deadliest.

Meller first stepped foot in the club at age ten. His parents drove him to the city from Bedford in Westchester County, where he grew up. That year, he played in his first tournament — and lost the first game. “I was demoralized and very rattled,” Meller says. “I had to really stay focused to claw my way back.” He nailed seven straight victories and won the tournament. “Even more valuable than winning was having to come back from losing the first game,” Meller says. “Whether it’s through making a mistake or just poor luck, you’re going to have bad games. You can’t dwell on it or you’ll continue to go south.”

Though Meller prefers live competition and the touch of the tiles under his fingertips, he has played untold hours of virtual Scrabble, either online against humans or against Quackle, the Deep Blue of Scrabble software. His own mind is computer-like: of the 120,000 words in the Scrabble lexicon, some 90 percent are filed between Meller’s ears. Lately, he’s been studying nine-letter words (requiring letters already on the board), a rarity in Scrabble and “not the most productive use of my time,” Meller admits. “But I love the long words, and when I do get to play them it’s really rewarding.”

At seven o’clock, the club’s director, Joel Sherman — the Joel Sherman, thin and spectral, Poe-like in aspect — calls out the first matchups. Meller will play Debbie Stegman ’85BUS.

Stegman, a former vice president of human resources at Time Warner, has been ranked as high as forty-second in the country. She grew up on Long Island playing Scrabble with her mother and grandmother. “One big rule in our family, for any games, was that you don’t let the kid win,” she says. “So I would lose 310–112. But I knew that the first time that I won, I really won. And it was awesome.” She began playing in tournaments in 2000 — the year Meller was born — and reached her peak rating while between jobs (“Unemployment does wonders for your Scrabble game”).

She remembers Meller’s precocious debut at the club. “Mack never played the first word that he saw, even at a very young age. It’s a tendency for any player, let alone a young person. You get so excited: ‘Oh, I have a seven-letter word and can get sixty-two,’ and you don’t even look to see that you could get ninety-five. Mack gets the ninety-five.”

Now, over the table, Meller wishes Stegman good luck, and in a moment the room fills with the ear-perking percussion of tiles rattling in their pouches.

Players use a score sheet to keep track of the letters still available, and hit their clocks after completing each play. Meller goes first, with JOLTY for thirty points. Then it’s a war of words: GLOOP, TROILITE, AMOEBAS. The room grows quiet, and the only sound is the clicking of tiles being rearranged on the racks. Stegman bingos with RESHINE for eighty points. Across the room, someone calls out “Challenge,” and Joel Sherman, a thick Scrabble dictionary in his hand, springs from his desk at the front and moves to the table like a filing to a magnet. Meller bingos with PINCERS, the last three letters attaching to H, ODE, and PAR to form EH, RODE, and SPAR, for a score of eighty-seven.

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