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Oxford man going for gold in Scrabble nationals



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Evan Berofsky is hoping to become a national champion in Scrabble. (click for larger version)
August 06, 2014 - C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N.

That's what Evan Berofsky is hoping to be declared when he competes in the 2014 National Scrabble Championship Aug. 9-13 in Buffalo, New York.

"I'd like to finish one spot higher," said the 38-year-old who moved to Oxford last year from Toronto, Canada, where he was born and raised.

Last year, Berofsky finished second in the national competition and won $1,000 for his efforts.

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"I don't like to make predictions, but I think I'm going to do decently (this year)," he said.

In the world of competitive Scrabble, he's currently ranked seventh in North America among players who use words derived from the world lexicon.

Competitive Scrabble players are divided between those who use the North American lexicon, which contains 178,691 words with two to 15 letters, and those who use the world lexicon containing 267,750 words.

After 17 years of competitive play, Berofsky's record stands at 1,260 wins, 786 losses and 8 ties. His average score is 420 points while the average score among his opponents is 386.

"The key thing for me is to have fun while playing and not (take it) too seriously," he said. "There is the competitive part of it, which is great, but I don't want to ever get to a point where I'm obsessing over things or worrying about things in Scrabble."

During his career, Berofsky estimated he's won approximately $15,000 in prize money.

But his biggest Scrabble prize came in 2005 when he met his bride, Amanda Hubble, at a tournament in Canada. The two married in June 2013.

This will be Berofsky's ninth trip to the national championships since 1998. He's previously competed in Chicago, San Diego, Providence (Rhode Island), New Orleans, Reno, Phoenix, Orlando and Las Vegas.

He's also competed twice in the world championships where he represented his native Canada. In 2003, he played in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and in 2007, he competed in Mumbai, India. Berofsky finished in the middle at both tournaments with even records of 12 wins and 12 losses.

He's planning to compete a third time in the world championship this November in London, England. Any individuals, groups or businesses interested in sponsoring him can reach Berofsky at eberofsky@gmail.com

At this year's national championship, Berofsky will play 31 games of Scrabble, which was invented in 1938, over a five-day period.

"That's a lot," he said. "You play seven games (daily) over the first four days and then the final day, they play the last three."

Unlike the slow-paced "kitchen table" Scrabble folks play at home, competitive players are timed. They have only 25 minutes each to form all their words and score as many points as possible.

Berofsky's style is to take it one game at a time. "I hope to be 1-0 after the first game," he said.

He expects the national competition to be much stiffer this year because the number of players competing in the world lexicon division has increased. Last year, the division consisted of 40 competitors. This year, it's expanded to more than 60 players, he said.

Berofsky won't just be facing more competitors, he'll also be going head-to-head with more top players like himself.

Even though he's been playing the game since he was a little kid, Berofsky didn't get involved in the competitive scene until 1997 when, while attending "university," as the Canadians say, he played in a tournament hosted by the Toronto Club.

"I had no idea that these things even existed," he said. "I was hooked immediately."

Established in 1975, the Toronto Club is the oldest Scrabble club still in existence in North America, according to Berofsky.

Berofsky is a 10-time Toronto Club champion.

So, what's the secret to being a good competitive Scrabble player?

Studying word lists such as the North American and world lexicons is obviously very important.

Given the most letters (or tiles) a player can have on his or her rack at one time is seven, Berofsky said it's best to learn all the words that consist of two to eight letters.

The North American lexicon contains 83,667 words with two to eight letters. The world lexicon contains all of those, plus another 30,908 words.

Berofsky said the best words to study are what he referred to as "bingos," words with seven or eight letters that allow a player to use every tile on his or her rack during a single turn.

"The goal is to use all your tiles," Berofsky said. "That scores more points and you get the 50-point bonus."

The most letters he's ever used to form a single word is nine Ė using all seven letters on the rack plus two letters already on the board.

"I don't think I've gone much higher than nine," Berofsky said. "I've done a few nine-letter words. Those come up. They're rare, but they're not super rare."

Although studying word lists can help elevate a player "to a certain level," Berofsky said playing live, one-on-one games is the best way to improve your skills.

Having a mind like his, one that enjoys doing puzzles and solving problems, is a big plus in Scrabble.

"Most people assume the best players are English majors or people that are involved in language," said Berofsky, who works as a logistics analyst for Descartes Systems Group.

"That's not the case in competitive Scrabble. Most of the people are inclined (toward) math and other problem-solving ventures."

Given the Scrabble board is a 15-space-by-15-space grid, each game is made up of "many little puzzles," according to Berofsky, as players look to form words and score points within the available space and with the available letters.

"It's important during the game to look for opportunities in every location and be able to spot them," he said. "Most people don't realize how close to chess it actually is. Most people just think it's a word game. (But) there's a lot of mathematical and spatial functions."

What's the best advice Berofsky can give to amateur, or "kitchen table," Scrabble enthusiasts?

"Stay there," he said. "Just kidding."

But seriously, folks . . .

"If you want to become a good player, the best thing to do is to study your two and three-letter words (as a starting point)," he said. "Those are the building blocks."

From there, players can move on to studying various word lists to expand their knowledge base.

When he's not busy playing Scrabble, Berofsky is a freelance sports writer, whose pieces appear on RotoWire.com, which provides news and information to aid fantasy sports enthusiasts.

"Originally, I did soccer player updates, but for the last five or six years, I've done a weekly hockey column (during the season)," he said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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