Stumble upon him in Portland, Oregon, and you'd be excused if you mistook Conrad Bassett-Bouchard for just another 20-something. After all, the University of California-San Diego graduate spends a lot of his days working at a popular food truck and playing Settlers of Catan with his roommates. He fits the mold.
But Bassett-Bouchard, 25, isn't your normal 20-something. He's the reigning North American Scrabble champion, and he is in Reno, Nevada, this weekend to defend his crown after unexpectedly taking down Scrabble legend Nigel Richards last summer.
In the lead up to the tournament, we spoke with Bassett-Bouchard over the phone about the letter he loves, the letter combinations he hates, his tips for casual players, that awkward feeling when your best word is one that makes you blush and more.
The main thing people wanted me to ask you for is maybe one or two tips or philosophies for the casual Scrabble player.
Number one is definitely learning the two-letter words, it’s pretty much essential. And from there you can use your knowledge of two-letter words to make parallel plays, so you can play two, three, four, five words at once instead of one and then your score will go up drastically.
In terms of two-letter words, what do you think are the one or two out of the ordinary ones that people should memorize?
I guess people are pretty good at thinking about it now, but "QI" is pretty essential because [Q is] the worst tile and it’s a really good way to get out of having the Q. And then probably "JO" because the J is not actually a very good tile and people don’t necessarily know that, so I think it’s a helpful one to just get of it quickly.
I wonder if there's a favorite letter you have?
Probably the blank because it’s the best thing to have, but [other than that] I guess I kind of like the letter C more than some people because I like playing defensive strategies, and there are no two-letter words that start with the letter C, so it’s pretty useful ... for scoring and defense.
Is there a letter that still frustrates you when you get it? Or at this point does no letter really frustrate you?
There is no single letter. I’d say there are combinations of letters that can get really frustrating. Two Ns can be really annoying because they are just not that useful. UW, UI, II -- it’s more like two- or three-letter combinations where you just see it and you're like, “Well, it doesn’t really matter how good I am, there’s just not much I can do with these."
Is there a word you feel is overrated, that people use too much or that they think is more valuable than it actually is?
There are probably strategies … I think people focus too much on what letters they’re keeping and how likely they are to get a 50-point bonus on future turns. I think people should be a little more shortsighted.
So you think people over-think the game sometimes.
Oh, everyone does. I do. That’s part of [playing] a game that hasn’t been solved, that can’t really be solved and hasn’t come very far in terms of advanced computer analysis. We’re all kind of grasping at straws to some degree.
When should you trade all your letters in? Is that ever worth it or is it something you try to avoid at all costs?
Exchanging is a very underrated aspect of the game, certainly at the living-room level. People are very afraid to give up a turn. But really, in general, you have to look at Scrabble in terms of "How many points am I going to get over the next two turns or three turns or ideally over the whole game?” And as a result, the short-term negatives of exchanging are not necessarily so bad. I played a game last night where I actually did exchange seven -- there just didn’t seem to be anything very useful.
I talked to the Rubik's Cube world champion [Feliks Zemdegs] a little bit about the link between being good at games and intelligence. He sort of thought [game-playing] is just one form of intelligence and I wonder if you have any thoughts coming from a slightly different angle, a slightly different game?
I studied expertise in college, and I think because expertise is so domain specific that what I learn in Scrabble is not very applicable to chess or solving a Rubik’s Cube or anything like that. A lot of it is just lots of dedicated practice. In order to do more maths or spatially-oriented games, it probably does help to have a predilection to better spatial dynamics and being able to put pieces together easily, but intelligence is a very broad term. So there are some people who are complete geniuses, but can’t play Scrabble that well. It’s just kind of how it is.
Do you ever have to play a word that makes you blush? Or have you ever avoided a word because it was too inappropriate?
I know people who have. I know people who have been in a lot of awkward situations. Long before I was playing in tournaments, before I was playing competitively or anything, I was playing with my mom and my grandma, and the best play I saw was a word that you probably wouldn’t want to play against your mom or grandma. I actually asked my mom, “Is this how you spell blah blah blah?” She was like, "No you’re spelling it wrong,” so it turned out to be OK. It was a four-letter word that started with a C and ended in T ... with a U and N in the middle.
But now that you're an adult, all limits are off as long as you get the most points for it?
Yep, I’ve played racial slurs against people of that background before because it was the best play. It’s nothing personal, and I’ve played naughty words against kids before, I’ve played naughty words against old ladies before, and they’ve all done the same thing to me.
It's just part of the game?
It’s just part of the game. We just want to make the best play.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Interested parties can follow along with the 2015 North American SCRABBLE Championship at scrabbleplayers.org.
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