Ever hear of an urodeles? How about a qoph?
Most of the population would probably think these words aren’t in the lexicon, or would guess that an urodeles is an ancient Greek musical instrument, and if you said qoph, they’d probably tell you to cover your mouth.
In fact, these words – a type of amphibian and a Hebrew letter – are the ammunition of the Scrabble elite; a group of wordsmiths that get together once a year to, ahem, squabble for the title of the best Scrabbler and a cool $25,000.
Berkeley’s own Adam Logan, a 25-year-old postdoctoral fellow in mathematics, yes mathematics, at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at UC Berkeley is a former champion and Scrabble maven.
At this year’s National Scrabble Championship in Providence, R.I., Adam finished fourth out of 79 experts to win $2,500 with a record of 21-10.
The native of Ottawa, Canada, and owner of a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard says that he’s been playing Scrabble since he was just a kid.
“My mother happened to find a book on Scrabble, which I devoured. Subsequently she heard an ad on the radio for the only official tournament that was ever held in my hometown of Ottawa, and somehow talked the organizer into letting me play,” he said.
Since then, Adam guesses he’s played in 60 tournaments and says his total winnings would be in the range of $30,000 to $35,000, but said he “doesn’t keep track.”
He said that the overall rankings aren’t quite worked out since the tournament finished on Aug. 10, but estimated that he’s probably fourth overall in the Scrabble ranks.
In 1996, he won the title and $25,000 in the Scrabble championship.
So how exactly does a mathematician become a Scrabble champion?
“There has been much speculation about the cause of this,” he said. “I believe that the general agreement is that a large vocabulary isn’t all that important as it tends to include a lot of words too long to be of any use in the game.”
“The relevant skills are the ability to find words on your rack, which is a more combinatorial sort of thing, chess-like calculation near the end of the game, and a sort of strategic sense in the midgame. All of which are more of the province of mathematical types,” he said.
Besides, that whole left-brained right-brained thing is overhyped, right?
“I think the dichotomy is somewhat false,” he said. “Many mathematicians, in my experience, are very interested in words and word origins.”
He’s obviously on to something. He said that four out of the last five Scrabble champs have been in the field of mathematics.
It could be because the scoring system is so dang confusing. At the tail of a tournament Scrabble player’s score is a point spread, in Adam’s case he was 21-10 with a plus 1,116 this year. This number, used in ranking players, is the total points one beats his opponents by, minus the total points his opponents beat him by.
“If you prefer, the sum of my scores less the sum of their scores,” he said.
Yvonne Gillispie, one of the National Scrabble Association’s organizers, said Adam played “fantastically” at this year’s competition, the largest in the history of the competition.
Over 600 players from 40 states and five countries came out to lay down words like “zaribas,” which means impoverished stockades, or “oxeye,” a flowering plant.
Just to show what kind of player Berkeley’s finest Scrabbler is, Gillispie said that Adam was late on the first day of competition and showed up with just 23 seconds on his clock, but still managed to score 480 points in three minutes and 23 seconds and drummed his opponent 440-293. He was penalized 40 points for going three minutes over.
“I overslept on the first day,” he said non-chalantly. “Jet lag, misset alarm clock, etc.”