Volume 79, Number 17 | Sept. 30 - Oct 6, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

From left, Neil Bines from Whitestone, Josh Silver from Grand St. on the Lower East Side, Aldo Cardia from the West Village and Dan Wachtell from Park Slope competing in the Scrabble tournament.

Any way you spell it, Scrabble tournament is a hit

By Jefferson Siegel

Scrabble’s popularity has spawned numerous worldwide competitions. This past Saturday the clank of wooden pieces on game boards created an audible presence in Washington Square Park as the First Annual Village Scrabble Tournament got underway. 

“Hopefully, annually,” said tournament organizer and Village resident Christine Economos. “These people are the ‘parkies’ who come and play every weekend,” she said, looking around at contestants with furrowed brows who sat at tables in the park’s northwest corner. “There are some who come and play every day.” 

The board game, whose name means to scratch or grapple, was created in 1938 but didn’t catch on until the early 1950s when it went into widespread production. It also spawned a television game show in the 1980s.  

Scrabble (the word is worth 14 points, excluding premium squares) may not provoke the kind of frenzied, bone-crushing competition one finds in, say, a football match. Nevertheless, the board game exercises a select set of muscles north of the optic nerve. 

Jacob Daly of Bayside, Queens, was one of two 12-year-olds participating in Saturday’s tournament. 

“I play other sports, baseball, basketball,” Daly said. “It’s the words, they’re very different and there are so many alternate spellings,” the youngster explained as his proud parents stood nearby. 

On the other end of the age spectrum, Joseph Simpson, 82, frequently travels to the Village from the Upper West Side. 

“I started playing two weeks after my 65th birthday,” the war veteran said while leaning into a new game. “I was getting my butt kicked at chess. 

“I have a pretty good vocabulary” he continued. “We have a lot of interesting people that we play with.” 

Economos, a program administrator at the American Museum of Natural History, worked with another avid player to have a “Scrabble Plaza” incorporated into the park’s recent renovation. 

“We went to the town meetings,” she recalled. “I talked with the architect [George Vellonakis] and explained this was an international venue for people from around the world.” 

Before the renovation, the leafy corner hosted several picnic tables. After Economos’s blandishment (20 points), Vellonakis subsequently had eight new tables installed, each capable of accommodating two boards. 

“There’s even wheelchair access on the side,” she marveled. 

There was one notable contender missing from Saturday’s competition. Economos told the story of a regular Scrabble player in the park, Penn South resident Arnie Weisberg.  

“He was ticketed by a cop 30 years ago for playing Scrabble at the chess tables,” she recounted.

Economos hoped Weisberg would compete at this first tournament.  

A regular park player since that infraction, which was dismissed by a judge, Weisberg unfortunately died on Sept. 6.  

“Today’s memorial tournament is in his honor,” she quietly noted. 

While the chess tables in the park’s southwest corner have been featured in a number of books and films, including “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Scrabble Plaza” can claim notoriety from its appearance in the 2004 documentary “Word Wars” as well as the 2002 book “Word Freak” by Stefan Fatsis.  

Despite the early autumn chill, seats at all eight tables were filled. 

“When you can come and play here, why play anywhere else?” Whitestone resident Neil Bines asked rhetorically. 

Economos was a bit more prosaic. 

“Playing Scrabble in the park is the purest form of Scrabble. It’s just pure joy,” she enthused. Definitely not the sentiment of a floccinaucinihilipilificatrix (55 points). 

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