If your Scrabble game involves studying your tiles to form the longest word possible, Paolo Federico-O’Murchu has a few pointers to share.
Paolo, 17, who starts his senior year at Montclair High School today, just returned from competing in the World Youth Scrabble Championship 2014 in Sri Lanka. The fierce competitor finished in 17th place – or tied for fourth depending on how you look at it – winning 15 of 24 games during the three-day tournament in Colombo.
“I consider wins more important than how much you win by,” he said, explaining that tournament champions are chosen based on the final point spread.
Paolo was the only player from North America in the pool of 120 competitors hailing primarily from Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand, India and Pakistan.
“I had some opponents who spoke poor English, very heavily accented, but great players,” he said. “You don’t have to necessarily speak English to play Scrabble in English.”
One does, however, have to know the international Scrabble dictionary backwards and forwards.
“It’s a new dictionary. It’s larger than the American one: 23 more two-letter words, a couple hundred more threes and I don’t know how many more sevens … tons more.”
He admits interning at a nonprofit and working as a camp counselor this summer did not leave much time for studying. Still, he said, traveling alone for the first time and making new friends made it all worthwhile.
It was clear from an early age Paolo would amount to more than what he calls a “living room” player. By age 8, he was too good to face anyone in his family. In 6th grade, he and his partner, Nicky Vasquez of Livingston, placed second in Nationals, and he would go on to compete with Conor McGeehan, also from Montclair. He also beat everyone at Glenfield Middle School and then Montclair advancing to the state round of the National Spelling Bee, where he got stumped by the word “cachet.”
“I’ve always had a natural affinity for words,” he said, a quality he likely inherited from his parents, who are both journalists. “I owe everything I have accomplished to them. They have been very supportive.”
Scrabble will shift to the backburner this fall when its time to apply to colleges and get back to his other passions, such as poetry and baseball. He’s not set on a particular school, but intends to study law.
Once he gets his driver’s license in a couple of months, it will be easier for him to travel to tournaments on a “casual basis.” However, he’ll miss playing against teens.
“When I face adults I have a pretty good record,” he said. “Kids play faster and they play more phony words. Adults play more conservatively.”
Looking further into the future, he doubted he would let his children win.
“My kids will either never play due to me beating them or will become very good at it,” he joked.
Maybe he will share these pointers with them:
Tournament play, Paolo explained, is all about strategy – which letters are in the bag, what’s on the board, what’s on your opponent’s rack and how to block the board are all on a competitor’s mind. The ultimate goal is getting a “bingo,” Scrabble-speak for using all seven tiles on your rack, a move which comes with 50 bonus points.
“It’s much more strategy than just trying to make long words,” he said.