Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Question I Get Occasionally

"Can you make money with that Scrabble stuff?" The answer: yes, but not very much. I've been playing tournaments since 2003, and I've won about $20,000. And we don't get any sponsorship money, so I have to pay all my entry fees and travel expenses myself - yes, including the trips I've taken to India, Thailand and Malaysia and the trip I will be taking to Poland this fall for this year's world championship tournament. I would guess I've broken even.

A typical multi-day weekend tournament might cost $75-$100 to play in the top division and pay $300-$500 to the winner and lesser amounts for second and third. There are a few tournaments each year that pay more, most notably the Nationals and the large opens. There, the first prize might be a few thousand - for the Nationals, it's $10,000 - but there's usually a big drop-off from first to the other prizes. For example, I narrowly lost my last game this year at the Dallas Open. I finished third, and won $700 - I'll gladly take it - but had I won that game, I'd have finished first and won $3,000.

What tends to happen is that there's a very few super-elite players, no more than five or ten in the world, who can reliably finish at the top in the bigger events, and a class of strong experts right below them, maybe another fifty or a hundred, who can finish up there now and then and come respectably close most of the time when they don't win. There's overlap between the two groups, and it's sometimes hard to say which group a player belongs to. Finishing near the top consistently as the players in the elite-but-not-super group do will keep your rating high, but if you finish fourth when they're only paying three or seventh when they're only paying six, no money for you. It's not unusual for players right below the super-elite to have one or two healthy paydays and follow it up with near misses in the next several events, given the streakiness and luck factor inherent in the game. I'm in that group as a player, and that's been my story sometimes. I've missed out by inches on nearly as much money as I've won. On the other end, a big tournament where almost everything goes right can yield a big score: Half my lifetime winnings came in one event - the 2006 Nationals, where I won $10,000 for finishing second. (Back then, the winner received $25,000, but Hasbro decided not to bother supporting adult tournament Scrabble anymore a few years ago, so now it's $10k to the winner.) With that fortunate happening, I've won somewhat more money per tournament game played than most other players who are as good as I am, as far as that can be guessed. The longer I play, the more that per-game figure will trend down unless I land another big fish, which requires large amounts of both luck and skill and is thus very difficult to do. Nationals in three weeks!

Not only that, you'd think that lower divisions of tournaments would pay much less, but they often don't. It's common to see someone winning a division consisting only of the twelve least skilled players in the room and winning as much or almost as much as the player who won the top division, having to face no one except the *most* skilled players in the room. The two achievements aren't remotely comparable - the winner of the bottom division of most tournaments would get slaughtered in the top division - but financially you wouldn't know it. So some players reach the top of, say, the division 2 range and stop striving. And I don't blame them: it's not the players' fault (assuming they aren't throwing games to get into lower divisions later; I'm sure that happens, but rarely), it's the system's fault. Why get your brains beat in in Div. 1 and win nothing when you can win 90% as much in Div. 2 as the Div. 1 winners at all but the biggest events? Why play Div. 2 and lose when you can play Div. 3 and win? And so on, down the line. Hi, we're tournament Scrabble. This here is our spokesman, Mickey Mouse.

It's not as bad as it could be, though, because the amounts of money aren't large enough to get really exercised about. We're all making peanuts. Scrabble pays less than almost any recognized competitive sport or game anywhere. Competitive eaters make, like, ten times what we do. I'm not complaining about it - I'd play Scrabble even without monetary rewards, because I enjoy the game and trying to get better at it and I've made a lot of friends in the game around the country and the world. If I cared about the money that much, I'd take up competitive eating...okay, no, I wouldn't, I think competitive eating is stupid and gross, but you get my point. I'd be happy to see more money in the game, but I don't expect it, because despite some woofing from various quarters, there's no real reason to expect it.

People have also asked me why there aren't more tournament players, given that so many people enjoy Scrabble and Words With Friends and other such games. I sort of know - just because someone likes playing Scrabble doesn't mean he or she wants to learn thousands of words and study strategy and tactics at length so as to be able to approach playing the game at its theoretical maximum against opponents trying to do the same. Even putting in enough effort to succeed in lower divisions is more than most people want to mess with. You'd think even so there would be more players than there are (about 3000 in North America). Surely there's some marketing whiz who could help us, but I don't see anyone like that among us now.

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