Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Spanish Scrabble

Last weekend my friend Jean and I got to see something live that not many American scrabblers have seen: a tournament in Spanish. A groundbreaking one, at that: the first sanctioned international Spanish tournament held in the United States. There were 14 players - seven from the U.S., six from Mexico and one from Costa Rica. The tournament was held at the home of one of the players who lives here in Austin. We came to be there because one of the players, Travis, is also an expert tournament player in English and one of my good friends in the scene. He came down from Oregon for the occasion. We dropped by around lunchtime and got to meet everyone and see a little bit of the tournament in progress.

Why would Austin be a prime location for a Spanish tournament, you may wonder? The answer is that there are only two Spanish Scrabble clubs in the U.S., and one of them is here. The other is in Miami. The big Spanish Scrabble countries are Argentina, Venezuela and Spain, I gather. Most other South American countries have some presence in the game, Mexico has some but not that much yet, there are a few Caribbean players.

A lot of what I saw and heard reminded me of what I've read about the early days of tournament Scrabble in English. For the most part, Spanish Scrabble has evolved independently of the much larger (but still tiny) English tournament scene. The common point of origin is the box-top rules most people are familiar with, but tournament play by necessity expands and modifies those rules quite a bit...I should add here that, while English Scrabble has had the benefit of 20-25 more years of polishing its rules and practices and it seems clear that Spanish Scrabble would do well to take a look at how we've refined our game, there's nothing wrong with doing many or even most things a little differently. As long as the players are happy and the competition is fair, viva la diferencia (I have no idea whether I'm saying that right...sis?)

Some observations:

- Many things that have been around a long time in the English scene are fairly new to Spanish. For example, Spanish Protiles only recently became available. (For non-Scrabblers reading this, Protiles are the plastic tiles used in official Scrabble play, as opposed to the wooden ones that come with store versions of the game. The difference is that the letters on the plastic tiles aren't indented, so players can't cheat by distinguishing letters or blanks by feeling the tiles in the bag - "brailling" - when they draw.) Before the advent of Protiles, Spanish Scrabble had the rule that you couldn't count for yourself how many tiles were left in the bag; you had to call over a director or helper to do that for you.

- Spanish Scrabble allows each player 30 minutes on the clock instead of the 25 used in English. Not sure what the penalty is for going overtime (in English, it's 10 points per minute) EDIT: just learned it's the same penalty as in English.

- The sequence of a turn is different. In Spanish, you do everything before you hit the clock: place your tiles, add up and announce your score, write your score down, draw new tiles, THEN hit the clock. If an opponent wants to challenge the play, he or she must do so before you draw a replacement tile, as in English. As was the case in English Scrabble early on, the Spanish game has yet to adopt the "hold" rule. There's one more pertinent rule in here: once you place your first tile on the board for a play, you must play in that spot - you can rearrange transposed letters and such, but you can't take your play back or decide to play it somewhere else on the board. This is necessary because otherwise there would be no way to challenge - a player challenged could just take the play back.

As for writing the score down, I'm not absolutely sure about this, but it appears to be a requirement that you write down the main word formed by the play as well. I would support that rule for English Scrabble, to be honest - score checks and recounts are much harder when the players don't write the words down along with the scores.

- Spanish Scrabble is free challenge, so there are a lot of challenges. They have a novel way of addressing the problem of challenging plays frivolously just to buy time to think, which is a problem with free challenge. As is done in England and some other places, but not in North America, challenges are handled by runners. When the runner comes over to take the challenge slip to the computer, he or she brings a piece of square cardboard the size of the game board and covers the board with it so the players cannot study the board while the challenge is being adjudicated. (They also must put their tiles facedown when on neutral time, as we do.)

- Weird rule: score sheets aren't allowed to have the tile distribution preprinted on them. However, there's nothing prohibiting a player from writing the distribution on his or her score sheet manually once the game starts, and most of the better players do so. That sounds alien to an English player now, but in the earliest days of English Scrabble it was debated whether tracking sheets should be allowed and what rules should govern them.

- Spanish Scrabble does have an authoritative list of words like our OWL or CSW, but that's a recent development. The word source has been and still is the Diccionario de Real Academia Espanola (the computer I'm typing on has a weird problem doing special characters, sorry), but before the list, there were a whole bunch of guidelines in their rule book for how to judge from the dictionary whether a word was valid for Scrabble or not. I guess that was true in English in the early days, too.

- Spanish Scrabble has fewer words from 2-5 letters than English does, but many more at longer lengths. I gather this has mostly to do with all the verb conjugations in Spanish - the French list is about like the Spanish one in terms of how many words of each length there are. The effect on the game: more bingos (called "Scrabbles" in Spanish lingo, which makes more sense, I guess; what does "bingo" have to do with Scrabble?) and, at the other end, more racks where exchanging is the right play. There are eleven single-instance tiles in Spanish (we only have JKQXZ), and having an unplayable tile in the endgame is much more common than in English. The supply of vowels is very important, since a rack full of consonants is usually a disaster...Travis says that, in his experience, the English game is markedly more strategy-oriented, though top Spanish players can and do deploy effective strategy and tactics where the situation calls for it.

- Tournaments in Spanish are small and about all of them are opens. There's a huge gap between the top players and everyone else, both in ability and in the way they prepare and play. The stronger players play studiously, but the rank and file players tend not to do so - most of them don't even track tiles, for example. From what I've heard, the same split existed in the early days of English Scrabble also.

- The big tournament in Spanish Scrabble is the world championship, and unlike our every-two-years Worlds that a lot of North Americans don't even care about, they hold it every year. It was in Costa Rica last year, and will be in Mexico City this year.

- It seems like pairing methods are a work in progress in the Spanish game. I saw on a laptop there what looked to be pairing software, but I think it must have been more just record-keeping software. The tournament was re-paired manually after each round. I think they were using some sort of Swiss pairings, but I'm not sure. Maybe one of the tournament software programs used in tournaments in English can be fitted for use in Spanish tournaments too.

- Something English Scrabble players can relate well to: Hasbro sucks. I talked with a few of the Spanish players who were in leadership positions in the game, and they each independently mentioned having called on Hasbro to gauge interest in the Spanish game, only to be haughtily dismissed. One player mentioned proposing a School Scrabble program in Spanish. Hasbro sure loves them some School Scrabble in English - remember, they quit supporting adult tournament Scrabble so they could devote those resources to pushing the kiddie version - but nope, they shot down the idea of Spanish School Scrabble right away. Couldn't be clearer to me why: you can't put the kiddo who wins the Spanish School Scrabble championship on the Jimmy Kimmel Show or wherever and pimp a few extra home sets in the bargain. Lovely.


Travis finished the tournament 6-4 ("not bad for a gringo", he added), which should be enough to qualify him to be one of the U.S. representatives at the Spanish world championship. He went last year as well and finished quite respectably for a non-native speaker who'd only been playing the Spanish game for a year or so. What he's doing here is very difficult - I switch-hit between two English word lists, and that's challenging, but at least the smaller list is a subset of the bigger one, so when I play the bigger one I can play every word in the smaller one. And the differences between OWL and Collins are nothing compared to the differences between either one and a list in an entirely different language. Travis did say that he gets tripped up in Spanish Scrabble by his English knowledge sometimes. No surprise there.

Anyway, I really enjoyed getting to see the game and meet everyone, and I'd like to see the English and Spanish scenes get closer. I talked with a couple of people there about the possibility of arranging some joint activity in Austin...be interested to see where that might lead.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure that Hawaiian Scrabble exists (with its 13 letters and all) but I made a list of twos and threes once. It was very short. I wonder what it would be like to play that.