Will Anderson doesn't see words as they are, he sees what they could be.
He lives in LANCASTER, which rearranges to ANCESTRAL.
His high school baseball coach, ED WISSNER, was just a scramble away from WEIRDNESS, though he never told him that.
That's the kind of constant word play going on in the mind of the nation's reigning Scrabble champion.
"I've always been a good speller, and for whatever perverse reason I always enjoyed doing spelling tests," said Anderson, a Westchester County, N.Y., native who edits textbooks for M.B.A. students. "I started out as a lover of words, and then somewhere along the line I really fell in love with the game."
Anderson, 33, lives with his girlfriend and their two cats. He got his Scrabble start on the competitive Boggle scene in New York City about nine years ago when a friend introduced him to the classic Hasbro game. Anderson was hooked.
"His ability to very quickly get up to speed on any kind of game, especially a word game, is sick," said Rahn Mckeown, a Scrabble player from Chester Springs who's known Anderson for about a decade. "He's a killer. He comes across as pretty flat and even-keeled, but underneath it, heart of a lion."
Last summer, Anderson won the North American championship in New Orleans, which came with a $10,000 prize. In August, he'll defend his title in Buffalo, N.Y. Based on his play in sanctioned tournament games, he is ranked second in the country.
On Saturday, Anderson played a match in the community room at the Independence Place apartment building in Society Hill. Competitive Scrabble players brought their own game boards (all of which swivel), as well as timers and personalized tile bags. During play, the room was largely quiet, save for the frequent clacking of tiles being shaken in the air and a steady accompaniment of verbal score tallying. Competitors, divided into two divisions, played seven games. Each player got 25 minutes per game to make moves. Only words found in the Scrabble dictionary were allowed.
At the competitive level, a mastery of the dictionary is the ante.
"The idea is, you want to turn Scrabble into a pure strategy game as opposed to a word-finding game," Anderson said. "You want your word finding to be so automatic that it takes up next to no time, and you're spending all your time on strategic concerns. That's the goal."
So on Saturday he played words like: FOLACINS (another term for folic acids) and OVOID (egg-shaped).
If players think words aren't in the Scrabble dictionary, they can challenge, but risk losing turns if the words are legit. Anderson is becoming a master of the bluff.
"Now that I'm a highly ranked player, I have kind of carte blanche to play anything that looks remotely like a word, and they will be very reluctant to challenge it," Anderson said.
When a game looked tight during the national championships last summer, Anderson took his opponent's word BOUNTY and made it BOUNTYING to hit a triple word score for 45 points. Anderson knew that BOUNTIED, the adjective, was in the dictionary but that the verb was not. His opponent didn't bat an eye.
"That was a fast one I pulled using that kind of weird, arcane detail of the dictionary," he said.
His highest scoring single word? TROCKING (a Scottish word meaning "bartering") for 230 points. His highest game hit 683. One of the strangest words he's used to open a game has been AXOLOTL, the Mexican salamander.
To stay sharp, Anderson spends at least 30 minutes a day on anagrams, rearranging letters to form words. Sometimes he'll do them on his iPad while running on the treadmill.
Anderson, who in explaining his game strategy apologized for "being pretty wordy," broke down every play as consisting of three components: the word you're playing, the letters you leave behind, and how you want to influence the board or defend prime spots. It's really more math than English, he said. In fact, most of the top players come from math backgrounds.
"Every word that hits the board, you're ticking off the letters that are played, tracking the tiles as the game proceeds, so you have a better idea of what could come up," he said.
His tip for the more casual Scrabble player is to learn the 100 two-letter words in the dictionary. QI (energy flow and a principle of Chinese medicine) or ZA (short for pizza) can bring big points played in the right spots. He also suggests trying out a local tournament some time. Since the popularity of online games like Words With Friends, he's seen the Scrabble scene grow.
At the Philadelphia tournament, Anderson was something of a Scrabble celebrity. The competition included a "Kill Will" cash prize of $5 if anyone beat him. He won six of his seven games and took home the $140 prize.
Last year, a Taiwanese robotics company asked Anderson to play against one of its machines at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. While the robot was good at the words (as a computer, it knew all of them), it struggled with strategy. Anderson beat the robot three games to none.
In July, he will throw out the first pitch at a home game for the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, a AA-affiliate of the Miami Marlins. At the ballpark, he'll try to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the most Scrabble games played by one person at the same time. He'll take on 30 Jumbo Shrimp fans.
"It's all been really cool," Anderson said. "I'm just a regular guy. I never imagined I'd get to do all this stuff as a result of my nerdy hobby."