National tournament player co-hosts local weekly Scrabble night

November 01, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Louise Wolfe of Hagerstown played in the first national Scrabble tournament in 1978. She co-hosts chess and Scrabble night at Port City Java in Hagerstown, and tries to pass on her knowledge to new players.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Louise Wolfe is a wizard of words, a virtuoso of vocabulary, a logician with letters.

She is, essentially, a skilled grande dame of Scrabble.

And Wolfe, 66, of Hagerstown, is hoping to spread the love. She and Vivienne Smith are hosting a Scrabble group from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays at Port City Java, the coffee shop Smith owns in Longmeadow Shopping Center in Hagerstown. Game boards are provided, or participants may bring their own. There's no charge to participate.

Wolfe is no newcomer to Scrabble. She played in the first national Scrabble tournament, called the North American Invitational, which took place in May 1978. Out of 64 players, Wolfe placed 30th.

But, like most people, she started playing with friends.

"I grew up in Illinois, and then I served in the Peace Corps for two years in Ghana after college," Wolfe said. "And then I moved to California to the San Francisco Bay area. And I lived there for 35 years."

Wolfe, who has a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling, worked at a day treatment program for schizophrenic people. It was during downtime that she played Scrabble with friends.

"What started to happen was my friends wouldn't play with me anymore, because they'd get mad. I'd take the X and make a 50-point play. Almost every time," she said. "Luckily, a friend of mine knew about the Scrabble Players Association, and at the time, it cost $5."

Scrabble Players Association is a competitive organization for people who take their word games seriously. And it was through the players association that Wolfe gained access to the first national tournament.

"I timed it just right, because I only started playing this club Scrabble a year before this tournament," she said. "But I only got in by a fluke."

Wolfe said only qualified players were invited to the national tournament — people who had won a local tournament during the previous 12 months or were known as national competitors. Wolfe admitted that didn't qualify on either score, but as the final invitation list was compiled, spaces opened up. A friend recommended that Wolfe be included, and she got an official invitation.

Wolfe threw herself into intensive preparation. She joked that a friend of hers threatened to do an intervention because Wolfe spent all her time going through the official Scrabble tournament dictionary, memorizing words.

"I learned the two-letter (word) combinations, and then tried to learn as many of the three-letter words as I could," she said. "I never got that (memorized) completely, but I learned a lot of them."

Wolfe and 63 other finalists went to New York City. They played one-on-one games for three days in the Loews Summit Hotel.

"After the first game, there are two groups — those who are 1-0 and those who are 0-1. So the 1-0's got rematched, and the 0-1's played each other," she said. "It just continued. We probably played 32 games over the course of the three days."

The top 32 finishers received a custom-embossed, official Scrabble dictionary. Wolfe still has her copy.

"I probably surprised everybody except myself, because I knew I was good," she said. "But later on, my friend who had recommended me in the first place said, 'Louise, you could be at the champion level.' I said, 'I don't want to devote the time.'"

Wolfe played competitively for a decade. She organized tournaments in San Francisco and led club activities. Then, in 1988, she adopted a child, and single motherhood put an end to her Scrabble career.

"It's very hard to play when a child is around, because her attention radar goes on and she wants you to pay attention to her," Wolfe joked.

After marrying Washington County Public Schools teacher Russell Williams, Wolfe relocated to Hagerstown in 2007. Recently she met Vivienne Smith, and has tried to pass on her competitive knowledge to players who drop in Wednesday evenings to play Scrabble at Port City Java.

"We do a combination of the home game and club competition. And depending on their interest, I give the (two-letter-words) cheat sheet out and let them use it while they're playing," Wolfe said. "And if they want tips or strategy, I'll tell them how to do better."

Wolfe is competitive, but she's generous. She welcomes new people of all skill levels to play and improve their game. Simply playing Scrabble with new people is a good first step to playing better, she said.

"Play often. And play people who are better than you. Don't be playing your family every time," she said. "And come to Port City Java and play me."

If you go ...

WHAT: Chess and Scrabble night

WHEN: 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays

WHERE: Port City Java, Center Court at Long Meadow Shopping Center, 1551 Potomac Ave., Hagerstown

COST: No admission fee

CONTACT: Call Port City Java at 301-790-5040

MORE: For all ages. Game boards will be provided.

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