News & Politics

Word Magic

He works with numbers, but it's letters that have brought him glory

Bob Linn's opponent has nerve–or NERVE. So Linn does what expert Scrabble players do–lays down a "bingo." He uses the E in NERVE to spell ROSTRATE on a triple-word square. He doesn't know what it means, but he doesn't have to. The bonus for a bingo–a word using all seven tiles on a player's rack–makes it a 77-point play.

Linn is 3-0 by midnight Friday at this tournament, beating three other experts by more than 150 points each.

"You're kickin' some butt here, Toots," says a lower-level player during a break.

"Magic tiles," Linn says.

Fo r a financial adviser, Linn has a way with words. This month, the managing director of Ferris, Baker Watts is one of 15 nationally ranked players representing the United States at the World Scrabble Championship in Malaysia. "I get to play in the 'big dance,' " says Linn, who lives in Potomac with his wife, Gail, an audiologist.

First he has to learn a new dictionary. Since starting to play in 1983–he's been at the expert level for 18 years–Linn has studied The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. The British use a different one, with 25,000 more words, which until now he had ignored.

"It would pollute my brain," says the 60-year-old Linn. In Malaysia, both dictionaries are fair game, so when he qualified, he started carrying "Bob's British Bible" everywhere.

He studies it in movie theaters before the lights dim and at stoplights. He goes online to challenge players in countries that use the British words. He listens to anagram tapes. His wife, an intermediate-level tournament player, quizzes him.

The practice works. Scramble the letters in ASTILBE–a plant–and ask Linn for the word. He'll give you that and three others–BASTILE, BLASTIE, STABILE–in ten seconds.

AF oreign Service kid, Linn spent some of his early years in India, where he played Parcheesi and Monopoly with Americans and Brits. His family later moved to Washington, and he went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. An 11th-grade gym teacher changed his life when he asked Linn to wrestle a third-string varsity player.

"I had zero confidence in anything physical," Linn says. He won–and joined the team the next year. "I found out I could do something."

At the University of Maryland, he joined the chess and swim teams. In 1983 he took his daughter to a Scrabble tournament, where he learned about the Washington, DC Scrabble Club. He showed up for the next meeting.

"I happened to be one of the better players–by accident," he says. His day job working with numbers might help: "It's a game of mathematics," he says. "A shorter word could be worth a lot more than a longer word."

He's gone back to the club almost every Tuesday since then; he spends most meetings teaching "Scrabble school."

Un til recently, Scrabble was only "a spare-time hobby," Linn says. He was too busy doing other things–bridge tournaments and a 13-year stint with a nationally ranked paintball team. He's on five tennis teams–"I can't do anything without competing."

Most vacations revolve around Scrabble–including a trip to Australia, where he went scuba diving with sharks before the Australian National Championship. There's usually a small monetary prize, but the trips are at Linn's expense.

Wherever he plays, he wears a black baseball cap with yellow letters: CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.

"It's not a political statement," he says. "It's my Scrabble persona." He got the hat in 1985, when he and three teammates needed a name in a tournament.

The hat is also part of his strategy: When Linn puts down a "phoney"–pros occasionally use fake words on purpose–the cap's bill prevents opponents from seeing his expression. And he doesn't want to get caught eyeing a hot spot–a place on the board that's open for a high-scoring word.

The cap didn't save Linn from his biggest Scrabble blunder: He had the chance to put ACTIVIZE on two triple-word squares, with the 50-point bonus of using all his letters at once. He slapped down his tiles too quickly and the C ended up where the A belonged. ACTIVIZE was worth 284 points; CATIVIZE isn't a word. He lost his turn.

Linn's longest word ever is ten letters, but it wasn't RELAXATION. He's not too familiar with that one: "The hard part is getting words out of my head so I can go to sleep."