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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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Mack Meller / Photographs by Jeffrey Saks

When architect Alfred Butts of Queens, a lover of crosswords, chess, and jigsaw puzzles, invented Scrabble in 1938, he could not have foreseen players like Meller, let alone the game’s explosion in popularity, or its rise to the upper firmament of cerebral, universal board games like chess and go. The first tournaments were held in 1973 in Brooklyn and the Catskills, and while New York is still Scrabble’s nerve center, world-class players have emerged in Australia, Nigeria, and even non-English-speaking countries like Thailand. Players are rated by the Elo system, the same formula used in chess. An “expert” rating is 1600, which Meller reached at age eleven, making him the youngest expert on record.

“What I love most about Scrabble are the mathematical and the strategic elements, and also the randomness factor,” Meller says. “There are so many different possibilities. In chess, it’s always the same openings, the same positions. In Scrabble, no two games are the same. I doubt two Scrabble games have ever been identical after the second play.”

Scrabble is not simply a word game. As journalist Stefan Fatsis, author of the best-selling Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, says, “Scrabble is a math game. It’s about probability, board geometry, spatial relations, and pattern recognition. The best players, like Mack, have beautiful mathematical minds. They are assessing a pile of information: the score, their tiles, the unseen tiles, the layout of the board, and the amount of time left on the clock. They are searching for, and choosing from, a handful of plays, and deciding how each one will affect their likelihood of winning. And they make those calculations in seconds.”

Photograph by Jeffrey Saks

Like many top players, Meller is also adept at chess, and might have gone in that direction early on, if he hadn’t felt so warmly at home in Scrabbleville. “It’s a tight-knit community, with people of all sorts of backgrounds and ages,” Meller says. “I’m good friends with a lot of different people. One of the things I love about the community is that everyone’s so supportive of each other and always willing to offer advice.”

“There is a tremendous intellectual camaraderie at the top of this game,” says Fatsis, who is ranked 184th in North America, “and when someone like Mack walks into this world, the players want to nurture him. They saw his genius immediately and embraced it. And they became like a family to the Mellers.”

Clearly, Meller found his tribe. At tournaments he’ll often room with friends, and after games they’ll all go out together and talk about Scrabble and give each other word puzzles.

“Once, after a tournament, we went out to eat,” Meller says. “A friend noticed a bottle of ketchup on the table and said, ‘What’s the shortest word containing all the letters in “ketchup” that’s not related to ketchup?’ We all thought about it for a while, and finally somebody found it: it’s ‘superthick.’” Meller hastens to add, “I was not the one who found it.” He smiles. “That was a great puzzle,” he says.


Photograph by Jeffrey Saks

Meller, who was homeschooled, began playing Scrabble at age five. Within a few years he was going round for round with the grownups, including his Scrabble-savvy father. This prompted his mother to call a Scrabble expert and teacher named Cornelia Guest, who ran a kids’ Scrabble club at a library in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a thirty-minute drive from Bedford.

“I got a call from Jessica Meller, who said another parent had suggested she get in touch because her son is really good at Scrabble,” says Guest, with a wry inflection that indicates this is the sort of call she receives often. “I said, ‘Let me play a couple of games with him online.’” They played, and Guest found that Meller was missing a lot of words — he simply didn’t know them. But his instincts were sharp. Guest invited Meller to the class, and they played a game.

“I saw a nice S hook and I had an S, so I was excited,” Guest says. “Then Mack, who also had an S, used it to make a play over two double-word scores. I thought, Whoa. He could also calculate the scoring instantly. I beat him in that game just because I knew more, but after that class I said to the librarian, ‘This kid is probably the best I’ve ever seen.’ I just knew right away. He loved words, loved the math, loved the other kids. Loved the game.”

That June, before summer break, Guest gave Meller 350 flash cards of seven- and eight-letter words containing five vowels, like ABOULIA (an absence of willpower) and EUPNOEA (normal breathing). By the time Meller returned in September, he had memorized them all. And now that he knew the words, and everybody knew he knew them, he could bluff — could play an invalid word with the confidence that no one would challenge him, since losing a challenge carries a stiff penalty.

Meller had moved beyond the class. Guest, seeing what she had on her hands, referred the Mellers to three-time national champion Joe Edley, who gave Meller some lessons. One day, Fatsis, the scribe of Scrabble, got an e-mail from Edley saying, “I have found the next champion. And he’s ten years old.”

Joel Sherman saw it, too. “I was at Mack’s first tournament, in Albany, and he destroyed the lowest division,” Sherman says. “He was a standout. He’s very quick and patient and analytic, and totally focused on trying to make the best play at all times. The luck factor — the letters you draw or don’t draw — makes it possible for you to play a perfect game and still lose. You have to continuously focus on making those best plays, and more often than not, making the best plays will result in a win.”

In games, Meller projects pure composure: he is serene, unflappable — what Sherman calls “the perfect temperament.” Win or lose, he loves nothing more than to analyze a game afterward with his opponent. He’s more interested in process than his personal feats. But he knows his numbers. His highest score in a tournament game is 670; only twenty-five tournament players in North America have cracked 700. His highest-scoring play was the time he dropped OBLIQUED across two triple-word scores for 230 points. And his rating of 2076 places him fifth on the continent.

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