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The following message went out to our iContact list on 2014-09-08:

Enlisting and Maintaining New Players

Dear NASPA Members,

The challenge of enticing people to try tournament and club SCRABBLE play is the same around the globe. I have queried the heads of every tournament SCRABBLE organization on the planet. The results are pretty much the same everywhere. Basically 1 person in 100,000 population actively plays tournament SCRABBLE with anomalies on both ends. Tournament Scrabble is an extremely specialized endeavor! Suggestions all sound so easy, but in practice, can be quite complicated.

The first thing to do is to realize and accept that most people do not want to play in SCRABBLE tournaments. There are millions upon millions who enjoy the game the way they are accustomed to playing. Those of us who play in SCRABBLE tournaments are in the top 1/10000 of one percent in ability of anyone who has ever picked up a rack.

Of those millions that play the game at some level, precious few would be willing to try even club level play. It is daunting. I recall my personal experiences:

In 1973, some guys in my dorm at college decided to hold a SCRABBLE tournament. We had charts, brackets and the whole nine yards. Each match was a best 2 of 3 match. Like many, I had played SCRABBLE games a couple of times as a kid, but I also played every sport and board game. This was just another game. But, it was competition and I thrived on that.

I found that I immediately comparatively excelled. I wiped everyone out. I even got to play YTTERBIA. I just loved the construction of that word. I thought it was too cool. We played box rules and agreed on some Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Afterward, I felt that I must be the greatest player ever and went out and bought a deluxe board and asked my parents to give me an unabridged dictionary for Christmas. In that board was a flyer for the official organization that was then called “SCRABBLE Players Association” with a number to call. I was petrified. What if I was not as good as I thought? I did not call.

I carted board and dictionary around for 7 years. Played all night SCRABBLE games and bridge in college. Played mothers of girls I dated. I played former teachers. I never lost a game.

After college, I was reading a local weekly newspaper magazine that listed activities in the city. There was a bridge club. I had gotten pretty good at the game during college and was eager to play. I showed up at the Dallas Duplicate Bridge Club and was paired with another newbie.

I recall a specific hand where I played a queen and the person to my left put a king on it. I said, “Well, there goes that!” You would have thought I shot someone. The people we were playing got upset. I said, “What is the matter with you?” the response was, “You could be giving your partner a clue as to what you have.” Although that was valid for a bridge player to say to a seasoned player, I didn’t take it well at all. I said, “I just walked in off the street and am playing with someone I have never met. What kind of people are you?” I finished the hand, the other hands, my partner and I finished in the middle of the pack for nightly standings; pretty good for a first timer. I left and never returned. 37 years later, I might have made a darned good bridge player, but I never played competitive bridge again because of that one interaction. I liked playing with my college friends. That was fun. These people were jerks. Or, maybe it was only that one person.

Fast forward 3 more years to 1980. I finally got the nerve to call the number on that flyer in the SCRABBLE board. “Hi, I’m Chris Cree from Dallas.” “Oh, we have a club in Dallas. It meets at X, there is a tournament there in two weeks.” “Heck, sign me up.” “Well, you need to contact x to sign up.” I called. It turned out the director of the club was a geometry teacher at my old high school. There were other older ladies at the club who were board-savvy and two other guys like me; Jeff Reeves and Mike Willis. We hit it off immediately. 34 years later, Jeff and Mike are still my dear friends.

I couldn’t wait to go back to the club and play in a tournament.

I went to the tournament. In those days, one played a three game qualifier in one open division. We played with 3 minute sand timers and a one hour time limit. Challenges were adjudicated by the director, a woman named Martha Downey who was employed at the municipally funded Walnut Hill Recreation Center with The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

If you placed in the top 16, you got to return the next day to play a 4 game final. I qualified! I also found out that I was entering a completely different world from what I knew. But, it was a world I wanted to be in. I noted right away that official Scrabble did not have words that were in my unabridged. I had to adjust.

I finished 4th and immediately said, “Where is the next one?” I watched the woman, Morine Green, receive one of those trophies with the lady on top with wings and with her arms opened wide. I was envious. I wanted 100 of those.

My business was such that I traveled a lot and I planned my travel for clubs and tournaments. I recall showing up in Atlantic City in the early 1980’s and received a warm, northeast welcome: “What are you doing here?” I couldn’t wait to kick their rears!!

If you have read all this and taken it in, what you find germane to SCRABBLE tournaments today are:

  1. It is a social game. If one gets a poor first impression of your group, one is liable to never return.
  2. There had to be am official organization in place. The SCRABBLE Players Association, underwritten at that time by Selchow and Righter, put a flyer in the game boards that they sold, thus providing advertising, had an office, a phone number, a staff, someone to talk to call-ins, had knowledge of clubs and tournaments about the country, had rules, had an agreed upon word list; an official structure. That very much appealed to me.
  3. It took me*7 years* to drum up the courage to call. Had that phone conversation gone poorly. Had that person come across as disinterested. Had there not been a club or tournament where I lived, I might not have never played.
  4. Had I lost all of those games I might have thought I was in over my head and may not have returned. I also knew I wanted to get good and, to me, that meant playing the best, so I called the woman who I saw was best and asked to come over to her house 2-3 times per week so she could beat my brains in and I could learn.
  5. I belonged to a group and met a couple of guys my age with a burning desire to play and get better just like me. I may not have returned had the demographics been different. I am not like other people. Most do not enjoy any success when they first try. Some, you would probably be glad they did not return. Others, you would hope they stick it out.

Every person’s story is different. There is no one answer for any group of persons. It just has to click. And, we see worldwide that that magic click only occurs with a precious few.

What does NASPA do? We get our name out there. We get people to see it. Online gamers? Yes, they are out there and they are advertised to. If they play the SCRABBLE app on Facebook, they know who we are or soon will. That is the most cost-effective advertising we have. But, an online gamer plays online for his or her reasons. They can play when they want to. They can try whatever words they want and keep trying until one sticks. There is no clock or time pressure. There is no rule book, per se, describing how to draw tiles or challenge or what to do in case an overdraw.There are no people that one has to socialize with if one is averse to social settings.

Hasbro has released a re-branded board this year; back to the original colors. There is an insert in every set manufactured that has NASPA’s information in it. Merriam-Webster has released the OSPD5. NASPA is advertised in every copy. We have a working arrangement with MSI. ESPN televised a spot on Sports Center on the NSC’s final day. We have other deals in the works that will be announced as they happen. This is a very important year for NASPA.

If they are out there, they will know about us. The next step is up to all of them. Since the beginning of the NSC one month ago, 133 brand new players have joined NASPA. And, who knows, we may not reap one player until, like me, 7 years go by. The step after that may be the most crucial. What will you do to make that person want to return?

We shall see how it goes.

Chris Cree