How a Massachusetts carpenter got the highest Scrabble score ever.
Looking at the game as a whole, it's clear that a lack of expertise created the conditions for the record. The play that enabled QUIXOTRY, for one, was a clear mistake. When Yorra played SCAMsTER, which scored 65 points, there were eight other bingos available worth 72 points or more that wouldn't have dangled a letter in a triple-triple alley. Among them were several common words, including the 94-point dEMOCRAT. Most players would have taken a few extra moments to search for one of those moves.
I asked Jason Katz-Brown, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology junior ranked 10th in North America, to analyze the game. Unlike most players mid-level and higher, Cresta and Yorra didn't keep track of the letters they drew on each turn, so it's impossible to fully examine their possible moves. But we do know what letters they played on each turn. When Katz-Brown input those into a Scrabble-playing computer program he co-wrote called Quackle, he found that Cresta and Yorra had better moves on 14 of their 22 nonbingo turns. One example: Cresta scored just 30 points using the second blank when he could have held it and tried for another bingo.
Technically, Cresta's strategy was unsound. Fishing for a once-in-a-lifetime play might be understandable in a casual game, where winning is less urgent. But in competitive play—even in a club setting, where there's less on the line than in a rated tournament—exchanging letters three times, as Cresta did, to enhance some combination of Q, U, I, and X is unorthodox at best, suicidal at worst. (The strategically correct move was to dump the cumbersome Q and move on.) In Scrabble, the player who waits for the miracle word usually loses. The implication: Cresta wasn't terribly worried about whether he won or lost.
"If they weren't really trying to win," an intermediate-level player named Mike Eldeiry wrote on the Crossword Games-Pro message board, "then can we really consider it our record? Fun, yeah. Neat, sure. Promotable, why not? But record, ummmmmmmm, I don't know." Eldeiry told me the game reminded him of a 600-foot batting-practice home run. If experts always shot for the moon, he said, "I think they'd have cracked 850 by now. But they'd have lost a lot of games in the process."
Most CGP posters defended Cresta and Yorra. Lexington-club regulars said they just played differently than Joe Expert might have. The democratic Scrabbling message: Even someone who doesn't study word lists for hours on end can achieve greatness. "Non-experts often make suboptimum plays," wrote Rod MacNeil, a top-100 player who witnessed the game. "This time that resulted in some pretty eye-popping plays. But they found them." Another expert, John Van Pelt, said, "When faced with the possibility of playing a Q-X triple-triple, they see it as a good opportunity to advance their winning chances. So they go for it."
Cresta, who is 43 years old, didn't start playing Scrabble competitively until a couple of years ago. He told me he loves learning and playing unusual words; at carpentry jobs he sometimes transcribes dictionary pages onto walls or sawhorses. In the record game, Cresta said he went fishing as soon as he drew Q, U, I, and X. "I wanted to get QUIXOTE down bad, or QUIXOTIC." When SCAMsTER hit the board, he immediately spotted the possibility of QUIXOTRY. But he also realized that those other words were possible. "I like to gamble," Cresta said. "I'm trying to win the game, but I'm trying to get that word down, too." Strategy wasn't a big concern. "I'm not playing a top player."
The difficulty posed by this game, and by games in general, is judging the role of circumstances in the commission of records. In this case, the sensible moves would have been just another set of moves in just another game. The wrong moves produced history. But is that enough? If 830—or any record—happens as a result of boneheaded play, tactical ignorance, or the pursuit of a good time, should it count? Or should records be reserved for those who have earned the right to set them, and who set them in expert fashion?
Here's what I think: Michael Cresta holds the record for club play, while Mr. 770 keeps his tournament mark. And here's what Michael Cresta thinks: "It's really not that big of a deal because I'm really not that great of a player. If you get two experts together, that game's not going to happen."
Thanks to Jason Katz-Brown, John O'Laughlin, Seth Lipkin, and Keith Smith.
Correction, Oct. 30, 2006: This story incorrectly stated that 57 tiles were unseen when Michael Cresta exchanged two tiles in hopes of drawing a T and a Y. There were 56 unseen tiles at the time. As a result of this error, the probability of Cresta drawing a T and a Y was misstated, both in the original piece and in a previous correction. The correct probability is 1 in 513. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Images of boards courtesy Jason Katz-Brown. Cell-phone photo of final board courtesy Judy Horn.