Dick Tupper is a man of few words. Except maybe on Tuesday nights.
Growing up, Tupper was not much of a Scrabble fan. Although he still owns one of the original Scrabble boards from the late 1940s, he would rarely put it to use.
These days, however, Scrabble is part of his livelihood.
“Most of the people I know that are my age have Alzheimer’s disease,” says Tupper, 89. “But I’m not going to get it. Because I play Scrabble.”
Tupper is the oldest member of what is believed to be one of Long Island’s longest-running and largest Scrabble groups. Every Tuesday night, Tupper joins about two dozen others at Panera Bread in West Babylon to face off over the beloved board game.
“Scrabble is kind of a way of life for some of us, not just a game we play now and then,” says Robert Krause, the group’s organizer and decades-long devotee.
PASSION FOR WORDS
Krause, who teaches math to adults in Brooklyn and lives in Queens, travels more than three hours round trip once a week to play Scrabble on Long Island.
In the 20 years that he’s been a part of the West Babylon group, Krause has seen it relocate from its original site at a King Kullen supermarket in Commack in the late 1990s to a Borders bookstore in Syosset to its current home in a closed-off section at the Panera on West Montauk Highway in 2005.
Krause and several others from the West Babylon group also play tournament-level Scrabble on Thursday nights in Farmingdale and have competed locally and nationally. The Farmingdale “Hardscrabble Club,” as it’s known, tends to attract more advanced players and averages eight members each week.
“Scrabble resonates with people because everyone knows it from their childhood,” Krause says. “Everyone can play it at one level or another.”
It helps, too, that the rules are readily understood, he says. On Tuesdays, players are matched up by ability. Tournament-level players do not use tactile Braille tiles and prefer rotating boards. Both groups play by tournament rules, so it’s strictly one-on-one gaming with 25 minutes allotted per player. They also adhere to the official lexicon of the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA).
BONDING OVER TILES
Diann Forquignon’s social circle isn’t the only thing that’s grown since she joined the West Babylon group a year and a half ago to help her memory. Her vocabulary has, too.
“I’ve learned a lot of words here, such as isogriv and linnets,” says Forquignon, 45, of Lindenhurst. “They use a lot of weird words.”
In his organizing role, Krause makes two- and three-letter word cheat sheets available to his peers on the group’s website. The players learn of additions to the club and tournament word lists from NASPA.
“When we get new people who play a lot with their family, and who always win at home, they think they are good players, and expect to do well here,” Krause says. “Then they discover that it’s a different game here. They may not win a single game their first month.”
Jonathan Kent, 31, of Hicksville, might be the only exception. Kent says when he joined the Farmingdale group five years ago, many expected him to struggle to adjust from “living room” to tournament-level play. Now, he’s the highest-rated player in both groups with a high score of 650 in Farmingdale and 621 in West Babylon, respectively.
Kent, a math tutor in Nassau and Suffolk counties, competed nationally in 2014 and placed 10th out of 164 players in his division. He plans to compete again in 2017 at the Division 2 level because his rating has improved. Kent spends about 20 hours each week playing, practicing or preparing for Scrabble. One of his strong suits is his cognizance of what Scrabble players refer to as “alphagrams” — seven or eight alphabetized letters. Kent says he has memorized tens of thousands of alphagrams so that he can know in a moment what words can be made from a given letter arrangement.
Bernie McMahon, 64, of Bay Shore, is no Scrabble shark like Kent, but he is a longtime player and has been a part of both groups for the past several years. What’s nice about Scrabble, he says, is that “it unites people from all walks of life.”
“They all seem to have this calling to the game which pretty much transcends all their differences,” McMahon says. “It’s one mind against another and always a learning experience.”
Panera’s Scrabble Night
WHEN | WHERE 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays, 1025 W. Montauk Hwy., West Babylon
WHEN | WHERE 6:30-10 p.m. Thursdays, Knights of Columbus Hall, 1 Morton St., Farmingdale