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Letter Head

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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Before there was Mack Meller, there was Dan Goldman ’04CC. Like Meller, Goldman began playing with his family at age five. He joined a Scrabble club in Manhattan, and at ten, the year his family moved to Westchester, he played in his first tournament.

“I loved words at an early age,” says Goldman, who works as in-house counsel and strategic planner for several of the holdings of a New York–based venture capitalist. “I was also very interested in math, and intrigued by the probabilistic and statistical aspects of the game. And I loved the intellectual challenge and engagement of matching wits against highly intelligent people in a game that, the more I played, revealed more and more strategic layers.”

“After that class I said to the librarian, ‘This kid is probably the best I've ever seen.’”

While at Columbia, Goldman was the top-ranked under twenty-one player in the country. He was wordsmacked, letterstruck, and found particular rapture in Michael Seidel’s James Joyce classes. “I’d spent so much time as a kid looking at odd sequences of letters and strange words, and Joyce was obviously a writer who was obsessed with and immersed in the intricacies of the language,” Goldman says. “You’ll see neologisms and ‘portmanteau’ words — words put together. I found it magical. I’d stare at Finnegans Wake and think of what combination of obscure words Joyce tried to anagram together.”

Good anagramming ability is key for Scrabble, Goldman says. “Players will study combinations of letters that they know how to unscramble in their heads under time pressure — for instance, A-E-I-G-L-N-R-T makes ALTERING, INTEGRAL, RELATING, ALERTING, TANGLIER, and TRIANGLE. If you can see these patterns quickly, you can spend more time on strategy.”

Goldman went on to law school and no longer had time for competitive Scrabble. But he’s kept an eye on the old domain.

"What Mack has accomplished is extraordinarily impressive," Goldman says. “In whatever he chooses to do, he has the whole world before him.”

 

At the club, Meller and Stegman finish their game (final score: Meller 457, Stegman 406). Then they go back and dissect their final moves, taking back letters, undoing the architecture, exploring alternate structures and destinies. After a couple more games, Meller says his goodbyes and heads back up to campus.

It’s been a busy first semester. Meller is figuring out how to make time for all his interests while carrying a full load, including a physics course on general relativity and a math course called Modern Analysis, which he describes as “kind of like very rigorous proof-based calculus.” He plans to major in math or astrophysics — or both. But Scrabble night remains a priority. He’s even begun attending the Tuesday-night meet-ups of the Columbia Chess Club — on a strictly casual basis. “I hadn’t played chess in eight years,” he says.

Letter Head

As for official Scrabble tournaments, Meller’s last one was the 2017 North American championship, held this past July in New Orleans. Meller finished second to his friend Will Anderson, a thirty-two-year-old textbook editor from southeast Pennsylvania. But being a college student inevitably means less time to travel to tournaments, and so it’s by a stroke of luck that a tournament is coming to Meller, to be held during midterms inside a games café called Hex & Company, on Broadway at West 111th — just four blocks from Furnald Hall. The café is a board-game emporium for people who like to roll dice and turn up cards and draw tiles from bags. The tournament director is Cornelia Guest, Meller’s first mentor. Joel Sherman will be there to play. So will Joe Edley. Meller’s father, Noel, will also be competing.

“My dad hasn’t really studied anything beyond two-letter words, but he enjoys playing, and he’s very good at finding bingos on his rack,” Meller says. “I’ve convinced him to play a couple of one-day tournaments, so it’s a lot of fun.”

In some ways, then, the tournament at Hex & Company will be a homecoming — a letter-perfect touch. It will spell out exactly what Meller means when he says, as he often does, “Scrabble is about so much more than the actual game.”



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