For most of us, “Muzjiks” and “zyzzyva” are simply words for a group of Russian peasants and a tropical weevil.
But for Scrabble players like Cian, a Grade 5 student at Bowmore Public School, these are “bingos” – mammoth seven-letter words that win 50 bonus points for using a whole hand of letters.
A member of the Bowmore Scrabble Club, Cian may never get a chance to play “Muzjiks” – the top-scoring “bingo” in Scrabble – but he has already placed other giants in club games, such as “sailors” and “Titanic.”
Cian joined his club and players from several East End public schools at a Feb. 25 tournament held in the Bowmore gym. Winners will go on to the city-wide finals in March.
Organizer Vera Bigall, who teaches at Bowmore, said kids love the game and enjoy official tournaments like the one at Bowmore, set up in part by John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association.
In the school club, Bigall gives beginners a Cool Words to Know list, with all the two- and three-letter words, U-less Q words, and high-vowel words in the Scrabble dictionary.
“They go home and play their parents and win,” she said.
At school tournaments, kids play in teams of two and win prizes for sportsmanship and theme words as well as points. A Bowmore team won the Feb. 25 winter theme with “polar” and “yeti.”
Andrew Moore, a Grade 8 teacher at Bayview Glen, said many students are surprised to find how good they are.
“They think they have to be the world’s best speller, and great at English, whereas it’s the math kids who really excel at this game,” he said.
“A lot of kids find they’re good by accident – that’s a great feeling as a kid.”
Jackson Smylie, now a Grade 11 student at Woburn Collegiate, is among the top young Scrabble players. He was in Grade 8 when he and partner Alex Li bested 400 competitors to win the US National School Scrabble Championship in Orlando, Florida.
They were the first Canadians to win, and Smylie later got to play on live TV with Jimmy Kimmel, who plays the US school champ every year.
“It was really fun, and a free trip to Los Angeles,” said Smylie.
Since then, Smylie has joined the Toronto Scrabble Club and played in adult championships, which have no age limit. The adult rules are similar, except that there are no teams.
“I play everyone,” he said. “I’ve played people up to 91 years old.”
Smylie said adults get more serious – hardly anyone talks – but the same memory tricks help players of any level.
“The main one is you take each word and put the letters in alphabetical order,” he said. “So if the word was RETAINS, you put it AEINRST. That’s called an alphagram, and you associate it with all the words in it.”
“Memorize about 20,000 of those and you’re good,” he said, smiling.