The major championships occur every two years; in 1994 the Nationals took place in Los Angeles. Wiegand had played a few West Coast tournaments at the time but was still a relative unknown on the competitive Scrabble scene when he walked away with second place and $7,500. He now has over 30 tournaments under his belt. He placed 17th at the Worlds in Melbourne in 1999. Then there was that razor’s-edge near-victory at the Nationals in 2000, where, due to the quirks of calculating spreads, he ended up placing third. In 2001, at the Worlds in Las Vegas, he finished ninth. Ninth—in the world.
Wiegand’s introduction to Scrabble as a child telegraphed later accomplishments. “I was always pretty good,” says Wiegand. “My mom and dad were casual players. Occasionally we’d break out the Scrabble board, and I always did well against them. Grandma was a better player; she was a good influence, but I was always beating her,” he recalls, with no trace of conceit.
“There was no Scrabble group organized in Nebraska, where I grew up,” says Wiegand. “One year, my parents went on sabbatical to Madison, and I was able to play in a club there. I was 11 or 12. Everyone else was, like, 40. I beat their top player the first time I went.”
Fifteen players make up the U.S. team in Malaysia. This is the first time the Worlds have been held in Asia, and some players chose not to attend because of concerns about terrorism. For the first time, the National Scrabble Association did not fund the team’s expenses. Wiegand and his teammates decided to come anyway.
On opening day, 90 contestants and 50 spectators fill the hotel’s ballroom, where descending rows of rectangular tables numbered 1 through 49 have been roped off. Players will move up or down the rows with each win or loss. Everyone wants to end up at the first table, where the finalists will compete.
For the first round, Wiegand is randomly matched against a player from Singapore. The two greet and shake hands but don’t dwell on niceties. When the announcer signals the start, they take their seats to play.
Pros play timed games; as in chess, each player clocks his own turn. (And it is usually “his”—there are only three women competing.) Each player has 25 minutes per game. They also play with pro tiles—smooth plastic squares that can’t be Braille-read the way wooden tiles can.
Wiegand and the Singapore player have a close game until, near the end, Wiegand lays down a coveted “bingo.” A bingo uses all seven letters on your rack, which nets you an extra 50 points on top of the word score. In kitchen-table Scrabble, a bingo is the ultimate coup; in competitive Scrabble, you have to be able to produce multiple bingos in one sitting. Wiegand’s word is MATURER. But Singapore comes back immediately with his own, OVERNEW, and wins. “He won by eight points,” says Wiegand. “Not a great start.”
Wiegand’s second game against a player representing Kurdistan-Iraq ends without fanfare. “He gained a big lead early on,” Wiegand says. “I never had a chance.” In game five, his opponent challenges his play of VATLIKE, and Wiegand loses a turn. He plays well the rest of the day, finishing 4–4, but with a large positive spread. The score of his last game of the day is 620 to 300.
Wiegand is not smug, he’s just precise. He recounts experiences without editorializing. He speaks quietly, with detachment and economy, like a scientist would in relating the outcome of trials. If this description seems uncharacteristic of a logophile, that might be because he’s not.
“I enjoy looking up unfamiliar words, but that doesn’t really matter in the game,” says Wiegand. “Scrabble is a math person’s game, rather than a word person’s game, which is surprising to a lot of people. You need to know about the probabilities of drawing tiles and the spatial considerations of the board. There’s a lot of strategy that doesn’t have a lot to do with words.”