Literacy Council spells “competition” S-c-r-a-b-b-l-e

  • Posted: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 1:08 a.m.
The Scrabble Scramble team sponsored by Ting Hao Chinese Restaurant gets its words on the board during Tuesday’s competition. The Rowan County Literacy Council fundraiser was expected to net about $3,500.
The Scrabble Scramble team sponsored by Ting Hao Chinese Restaurant gets its words on the board during Tuesday’s competition. The Rowan County Literacy Council fundraiser was expected to net about $3,500.

SALISBURY — Take eight teams, with about 65 people total, and add the 26 letters of the alphabet.

Put them all together, add some donations and it adds up to fierce competition, for a good cause.

Tuesday night’s tenth annual Scrabble Scramble fundraiser for the Rowan County Literacy Council was held at the Holiday Inn in Salisbury.

Literacy Council President Phyllis Martin said she expects the event to net about $3,500.

“You can’t believe how competitive it gets,” Martin said.

The players believed it. They could be seen practicing over the dinner hour, Martin said — reviewing lists of words they’d prepared.

Teams were even reminded to put away electronic devices and any “cheat sheets” before the match began.

But members of the winning team from Trinity Oaks retirement community still shattered the record with their high score of 8,290 points.

The win took “preparation and teamwork,” said Dave Foreman of Trinity Oaks.

Their secret weapon?

“Oxyphenbutazone,” said Jill Connery.

Asked to define the word, Foreman said, “It’s an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat arthritis.”

It’s also the word with the highest possible score for a single play in American tournament Scrabble play, according to published sources.

The Scrabble Scramble is three rounds of high-pressure wordplay. Instead of the traditional Scrabble crossword game, teams start with a word given by the emcee, placed in a specific spot in the center of the board.

Tuesday’s starting words were all appropriate to the times: “anniversary,” “tenth” and “sequestration.”

From there, teams have a limited time to use the 100 letter tiles in the Scrabble bag to make their own words, so long as they meet the rules of Scrabble.

Dumping tiles onto the table, they work as a team to make the highest-scoring crossword layout.

Teams can also buy extra letters for $1 a point.

When the bell rings to start the first round, players from the eight teams rush to the center of the ballroom with cash in hand to buy their chosen tiles.

With WBTV’s David Whisenant as emcee, the night got underway with some lighthearted comments.

“I ate some of the tiles,” Whisenant quipped to the crowd. “If I get sick, it could spell ‘disaster.’”

After play started, Whisenant told the Post that “a pretty fierce competitive streak” drives the competition.

“And these teams have a lot of pride,” he said. “As it gets to the third round and they see they’re in striking distance, you’ll see them get very serious.”

Another very serious issue

The Literacy Council’s work educating adult learners is the biggest reason he’s helped put on the event for nine of the last 10 years, Whisenant said.

“Honestly, I think people would be shocked if they knew how much illiteracy existed in this county,” Whisenant said.

“These people do something about that, and that’s something I have to support,” he said.

Susanne Pierce, volunteer for 15 years with Rowan Literacy Council, said she’s moved away from Salisbury, but comes back every year for the Scrabble Scramble.

What’s more, Pierce said that many members of the teams come back every year.

“A lot of them have been with us for 10 years,” Pierce said.

During that time, the thousands of dollars raised by the Literacy Council has helped the agency in its efforts to stamp out illiteracy.

“It’s a hard thing to do,” Martin said. She said adults who lack literacy skills “very often have jobs, they have families. The women are doing the washing and ironing and taking care of their families.”

They learn to read so that they can educate themselves, and in turn so they can get better jobs and help their own children learn, Martin said.

For Martin, the camaraderie is a key part of the Scrabble Scramble.

As the various teams scramble to spell out words around their tables, one member of each team copies the words from the boards onto a scoring sheet and tallies up the points.

Over at the judges’ table, Dr. Dave Schroeder, assistant professor of English at Catawba College, waits with fellow judges to check the words against dictionaries and confirm the scores.

The key to the event’s success, Schroeder said, is the “brain effort” that goes into it.

“So often, you don’t see your folks entertaining themselves in large groups this way,” said Pat Murtaugh, another member of the judging panel.

Over at the table of team Purfekt Spelers, Elaney Hasselmann, City of Salisbury community relations director, stood by Salisbury City Council member Maggie Blackwell and Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris, among others.

“An S? Another S here?” Hasselmann asked her teammates, as they sorted letters onto the board.

Over at the table sponsored by Ting Hao, Ruth Philpot and teammates did the same.

“As a group, we did no training regimen,” Philpot said, “but some of us play Words With Friends!”

Their strategy is the same as that followed by some other teams. Everyone starts with the randomly-chosen word in the center.

Then, Philpot said, they come up with a big word to go across the top of the board, such as “juxtaposition,” to score big points on bonus tiles.

“And then, we try to make them meet,” Philpot said. “It’s a challenge.”

It’s something that the Trinity Oaks team takes seriously, said Debbie Snyder, whom teammates said was the team’s “coach.”

“We turn our practices into a fine-tuned machine,” Snyder said.

The Literacy Council benefits from those who, like Philpot, throw in money to purchase other tiles so that they can spell additional words.

“We who are oldies at this,” Philpot said, “who usually throw in $10 or $20. Then we’ve got a stack of cash to work with.”

Cash also goes to raffle tickets for door prizes donated by area businesses.

With this year’s win behind them, members of the Trinity Oaks team said they’re ready to do it again.

“Our coach says we have to start tomorrow,” joked Jack Connery, of the Trinity Oaks team.

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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