TEL AVIV — Pick a day during any month of any calendar year and no doubt you’ll come across a Scrabble tournament taking place somewhere around the world. So it’s not surprising that more than 40 players are expected at the upcoming Fourth Israeli Open Scrabble Tournament in Netanya, set to run Feb. 10 to 12.
“They’re coming because they love Scrabble,” says Evan Cohen, organizer of the tourney. He adds that many of the foreign players are coming “because they want to visit Israel and this is a good excuse.”
There are those like Estelle Matthews – one of two Canadian players – who mesh the tournament with a family visit.
“I have been playing Scrabble for over 30 years,” Matthews told The CJN from her Calgary home. “I much prefer tournament Scrabble to living-room Scrabble. This [tournament] gives me an opportunity to see my four grandchildren in Israel as well as enjoy a good tournament.”
Others taking part in the internationally rated World English-language Scrabble Players’ Association (WESPA) rules tournament come because Israeli players are so friendly.
“I’ve found the Israeli Scrabble contingent to be amongst the most welcoming and friendliest anywhere, with the same smattering of Scrabbling eccentrics that are found around the globe,” Britain’s Scrabble champion Mikki Nicholson said. “I can’t wait to catch up with everybody and hopefully beat them all!”
Nicholson is one of 18 foreign players coming to Israel for the tournament. Along with Israel, Canada and Britian, the United States, Norway, Malta, Australia, Scotland and Germany will be represented.
The weather, of course, is another reason to attend. Israel boasts great weather in February, and the Netanya venue for the event looks out onto the Mediterranean Sea.
“The Israeli Open offers the perfect opportunity to escape the bleakness of a European winter and play international Scrabble in one of the finest settings of anywhere it is played in the world,” says Nicholson, who played in the Israeli Open of 2010.
The game is a social one. And addictive, too.
It was conceived in 1931 by an out-of-work American architect named Alfred Mosher Butts. Today, the game exists in 29 languages, including Hebrew, German, Italian, Spanish, French and Braille. English is the language used by serious players and in tournaments.
“The game itself is very easy to learn. The more time you put in, the better you get. Some games you reach a limit and that’s it. In Scrabble, you can always get better,” says Cohen.
A linguistics lecturer at Tel Aviv University by day, Cohen is Israel’s best-known Scrabble player. He’s the Israel national Scrabble champion, he runs the Tel Aviv Scrabble Club (www.scrabble.org.il/), and he is one of nine committee members of WESPA, which represents the interests of international competitors and national Scrabble bodies worldwide. Cohen is ranked among the top 100 players in the world.
He plays regularly at international tournaments, and through his friendships, he has been able to give Israel’s tournament prominence.
“We’ve become a lot more international. We started with five or six foreign players in the first Israeli Open. Now we have 18 people,” Cohen says. “We’re well recognized on the international calendar. We’ve had former world champions, we get top players.”
On Jan. 1, the official club and tournament word list used by competitive Scrabble players outside of North America changed. Some of the new words include “guqin,” “qin,” “grrrl,” “soz” and “voip.”
The best Scrabble players learn words by heart. Cohen tries to find time every day to do just that. He says his best word is “the one that wins me the game. I don’t have a specific great word.”
But he does have a message that he hopes to get out regarding the Israel Open.
“I hope we get as many players as we can to our tournament. We show another side of Israel,” he said. “It’s a good image that we’re projecting.”