Scrabble’s just as close as a Mill Valley pizza joint
If you go out for pizza in Mill Valley and see more people playing Scrabble than eating pizza, don’t do a double take. Especially if it’s a Thursday night at Round Table, because that is when and where the Mill Valley Scrabble Club meets weekly. They take over an entire section of the dining room and play Scrabble from 5pm until the restaurant more or less closes. Which may sound very intense, but–come on–this is a pizza restaurant. Cheesy Top 40 rock music blares at Round Table volume–stuff like Cher and the Offspring–and while the club members are passionate about Scrabble, there is a loose and open atmosphere.
“We just come here and talk, we’re all friends, and I love them dearly,” says Cynthia Pughsley, an upbeat and chatty woman from Oakland who happens to be one of the best Scrabble players in the country. “We do a lot of potlucks–just get together at people’s houses and play Scrabble. It’s our common bond. There’s such a wide range of people from all walks of life. And I love that. All ages, colors, everything.”
Though the very upper echelon of competitive Scrabble is known for its assortment of obsessive, high-strung personalities, the everyday Scrabble lovers who compose the bulk of the National Scrabble Association’s membership are regular, well-adjusted people who convene not to kick each other’s asses but just for the joy of playing Scrabble.
“We have a few Scrabble war stories,” Pughsley admits, “but mostly everybody plays for the love of the game. We’re not into going crazy.”
There’s a strong presence of Scrabble clubs in the Bay Area–there are clubs in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Gatos, and other cities across the Silicon Valley–and Northern California’s “Scrabble Zen” attitude seems to color most of them. Everyone at the Mill Valley club is friendly and welcoming.
Pughsley, who once ranked 75th in the nation, sits down to play with two demure ladies from the nearby senior center who are mainly there for the social kicks. The intent is on having fun and playing well. In between shuffling tiles on their racks, people sneak bites of personal pizzas and wave hello to the club members who continue to trickle in.
Lester Schonbrun, a soft-spoken man in his mid 60s who played his first game of Scrabble in 1954, is the Mill Valley club’s resident Scrabble superstar. One of the originators of the New York tournament scene in the 1960s, Schonbrun merited an entire chapter in Word Freak. Considerate and modest, Schonbrun is a model of Scrabble’s more grounded side and a testament to the fact that you don’t have to be wacko to win tournaments.
“Recently,” says Schonbrun, “most of the clubs have picked up membership quite a lot. For many years, there’d be two types. One type gets beaten very badly, and they say, ‘I’m never coming back here!’ The other type also gets beaten very badly, but they say, ‘I love this game. I’m going to learn how to play it.’ And they’re the ones who become good players. Unfortunately, until Word Freak appeared, that seemed to be about 5 percent of the new players.”
The other 95 percent can’t be too far behind.
The Mill Valley Scrabble Club meets on Thursdays from 5-10pm at Round Table Pizza, 50 Belvedere Drive, Mill Valley. Call 415.388.3549 for more information.
From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.