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Scrabble spells sweet success for sophomore

MIT sophomore Jason Katz-Brown recently took over the No. 1 ranking among Scrabble players in the United States.
MIT sophomore Jason Katz-Brown recently took over the No. 1 ranking among Scrabble players in the United States.
Photo / Donna Coveney

The game of Scrabble played by MIT sophomore Jason Katz-Brown bears little resemblance to the parlor game played by word lovers the world over.

But then, Katz-Brown is the No. 1 Scrabble player in the country. He officially claimed the top ranking during the April 28-30 Boston Area Scrabble Tournament in Westford, Mass.

"The typical American who plays in their living room is terrible," Katz-Brown said with a smile. He carries a dog-eared copy of the official Scrabble dictionary -- a compilation of four main American dictionaries -- around in his pocket.

"I know all of the words in here," he said. (There are roughly 80,000.)

For Katz-Brown, the highlight of last week's win was the last game he played against one of his favorite players, a man called "GI Joel Sherman."

Until three years ago, when Katz-Brown read "Word Freak" by Stefan Fatsis, he had only played Scrabble with his family. "I never really liked it then," he said.

The book highlighted Sherman's success and piqued Katz-Brown's interest in the skill and potential glory of the game.

Last week's game against Sherman proved to be a legendary one, Katz-Brown said. During the course of the game, the players had seven "bingos" -- a rare event in which a player uses all seven of his tiles in one word for bonus points. "It is just very unusual for that to happen," said Katz-Brown, who won the game with the word "unvisited."

The two players used such words as "alienors" ("one that transfers ownership of property to another," according to and "moating" ("surrounding with or as if with a moat," according to

Thus far, Katz-Brown's favorite word ever used in a game has been "waybills." He used it during the national Scrabble tournament in August 2005, earning 107 points. "That word won the game," he said.

Although Katz-Brown has been known to use some obscure words in papers at MIT, the meanings of the words are not the most important part of Scrabble, he said. "All the words are just letter strings that I use to gain points."

Katz-Brown spends hours poring over spreadsheets created from the official dictionary. He started a Scrabble group at MIT along with graduate student Aaron Bader, who is also a nationally ranked Scrabble player.

"He (Bader) is the only one I will play at MIT," Katz-Brown said.

For Katz-Brown, the game is part luck and a large part strategy. "Each rack is a new challenge," he said.

The key for anyone who wants to be decent at the game is to acquire the two-letter words first, Katz-Brown said.

The word "aa" ("lava having a rough surface," according to can be played, as can "qi" ("the circulating life energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things," according to

"You want to try to play the Q off as soon as you can," Katz-Brown said.

But the key to winning championships is memorization, he said. Katz-Brown plans to spend between three and four hours a day on memorization once his classes end. "My goal is to be the best Scrabble player in the world," he said.

For more information on Scrabble visit or join the MIT Scrabble Club by e-mailing Katz-Brown at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 10, 2006 (download PDF).

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