Cheri Cutler and her 6-year-old son, Jacob Weisgold, have a routine: Every morning, Jacob gleefully tells his mom by how many points he's beating her friends in Words With Friends.
Jacob, a kindergartner at St. Peter's School, started playing Words With Friends, a digital adaptation of Scrabble, when he was 5, looking over Cutler's shoulder and taking her phone. At first, Cutler didn't think much of it - he was just a little boy who wanted to spend time with his mom.
"Then he started taking my phone and making words bigger than I could make," she said. "He'd lecture me and tell me I wasn't playing the best I could play. I was like, 'Have the roles reversed?' "
Jacob made his highest-scoring word this Christmas, his mother said, and won 167 points with it. Fittingly, he played jingled.
He now has his own account through his dad, Dean Weisgold, a lawyer. Many of his adult opponents, Cutler said, still think they're playing her or her husband, who live in Center City.
Sharla Feldscher, a public relations coordinator who has been promoting Jacob's story and is one of Cutler's best friends, remembers playing the game with Cutler and losing badly, only to find out she had actually been playing Jacob.
"I'm talking about a kindergartner killing me at Words With Friends," Feldscher said. "I want all my friends to play him so I'm not the only one."
Cutler hasn't figured out what makes her son so adept at the game, but thinks her son's brain "just works differently."
She has words in her background - she was an adjunct writing professor at Temple University for 12 years, teaching writing-intensive courses, and did work in public relations - but says she can't come up with words the way Jacob can.
"When I first started playing, I only won three times," Jacob said.
Now, it's the opposite: As he put it, he's "crushing" one of his parents' friends, 285-169. His average word score is 44.8 points.
"I really care about that the most," he said.
Jacob memorizes high-point words like qi - a longtime Scrabble favorite that is a variant of chi, meaning vital energy that is held to animate the body internally - and once he was caught watching a Words With Friends strategy video on YouTube.
While Jacob doesn't know the meanings of the words he uses, Cutler said, she has him look up his big words in the dictionary to help make the game a learning experience.
"His passion right now is the words," she said.
Cynthia Ballenger, a lecturer at Tufts University specializing in children's literacy and teacher research, said Jacob's skill is unusual for a 6-year-old, but added that he is helped along by the game's constraints: Words With Friends tells players when their words are invalid without any penalties attached, and has a feature that shows whether a word is the highest-scoring combination possible.
Ballenger said Jacob is a good "chunker": He sees letter combinations that may make a real one, then he tries it.
"He's really good at recognizing patterns in spelling, and so he may be a really good mathematician or something," she said.