Why you should care
Because Mack Meller is the ultimate man of letters.
The second floor of the 57th Street Whole Foods gives off no particular hint that it is anything other than a brightly colored café serving artisan coffees and foodstuffs. But every Sunday, it turns into a gamers den, filled with Scrabble jockeys caffeinating — and amping up on cerebral competition.
Few players command the reverence afforded to 18-year-old Mack Meller, who, on a recent Sunday, rotated among several custom-made Scrabble boards for a club pickup game. With 25 minutes to play, Meller and his teammate, Mark Abadi, a journalist with Business Insider, had to think fast. Meller put down F-A-N-U-M (a sacred place) and netted 28 points to start.
Following A-D-O-B-O (a Philippine chicken dish) pulled out by Sam Towne, a resident at Weill Cornell Medical Center, Meller parried with P-R-U-I-N-O-S-E (covered with powdery granules), and he and Abadi advanced to 287 points. Towne reluctantly put down Z-O-D-I-A-C-A-L. Meller arched his eyebrow and challenged. Then, with 48 seconds remaining on the clock, Meller’s eyes darted between tile rack and board, before he set down L-E-B-E-N (a North African yogurt-like beverage) to go “12 points and out [of tiles],” winning the game 474 points to 423.
You never know what you’re going to draw, and even if you’re down 150 points, the game isn’t over.
“It’s important to think the play through — you don’t want to get hung up on a word,” he says. But Meller, a Columbia University freshman, is definitely spellbound by Scrabble. He has memorized at least 90 percent of the 120,000 words in the game’s lexicon, and lately, he’s been studying nine-letter words to contend his 2017 second-place finish at the 2018 North American Scrabble Championship in August. Meller also aims to rise above his national No. 4 ranking.
“I’m hoping to get back to studying [more words] after finals,” Meller says. At a multiday tournament in Poughkeepsie, New York, over spring break, he came in second “and also hit the 2100 rating milestone,” putting him 78 points behind the average rating of the 66-year-old national champion David Gibson.
So, what makes Meller the consummate Scrabbler? “He has better analytical skills than almost any of the other top players. Even at a young age, he was methodical and patient with his decisions,” says Joe Edley, a professional Scrabble player and the first to win the National Scrabble Championship three times. “The other extraordinary thing about Mack,” Edley adds, “is that while he has these great mental abilities, he’s as likable as anyone I’ve ever met.”
Scrabble — the board game you played at your grandparents’ house, pre-mobile-phone and post-holiday meal — has developed a massive following since the advent of virtual Scrabble, Words With Friends and similar apps. NASPA, the North American Scrabble Players Association, has between 2,000 and 2,500 active paid members, and its database lists another 10,000 who compete in clubs, where membership is not required. Annual sales of Scrabble sets in North America hover around $1 million to $2 million (Hasbro keeps that proprietary information), and surveys show that one in three households owns one.
Amateur Scrabble players believe the game rests on a player’s intellect, command of the Oxford English Dictionary and a little bit of wile. They are wrong. Considering that a bag of 100 tiles can yield more than 16 billion combinations, a competitive player not only knows a whole lot of words but is likely a mathematician (like national champ Gibson) or a computer programmer. Advanced anagramming skills are also key. The word WORDSMITH, for example, can morph into MISTHROW, MISWORD, RIMSHOT and WORMISH — if a player sees this quickly, he or she has more time to strategize.
Meller, whose parents — dad is a bond trader, and mom is an artist — belonged to a Scrabble club in Bedford, New York, began playing the game at age 4. When he was 10, he entered his first tournament and lost the first game. But the kid “stayed focused to claw my way back,” he says. After notching seven straight wins, he learned a lesson that has carried him through more than 50 tournaments nationwide. “Whether it’s through making a mistake or just poor luck, you’re going to have bad games. You never know what you’re going to draw, and even if you’re down 150 points, the game isn’t over.”
It’s that element of chance that keeps Meller returning to Scrabble over other games. “I originally started with chess, but the luck factor was missing. Scrabble is one-third luck and two-thirds skill, and when the best player isn’t winning the tournament, that just makes it more exciting.”
With a full academic load at Columbia, including courses such as general relativity and “rigorous proof-based calculus,” will the math and astrophysics double major ultimately choose Scrabble as his career, like Edley and world-record holder (and Meller’s former coach) Joel Sherman? Sherman thinks it’s a possibility: “It is habit-forming, and I suppose Mack stays at it because he recognizes that he is at the best age to groom his strength toward a national title. Plus, he’s just that smart that he can do it all.”
For now, though, Meller has chosen a non-Scrabble path. His summer job with the Voting Rights Data Institute’s Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group will have him researching the redistricting laws of all 50 states for algorithm design, running House-to-Senate legislative district matchings and modeling political preference in uncontested races.
How will his Scrabble knowledge help? “I think there are a lot of similarities between the possible geometries of a Scrabble board and the ways of subdividing a state into districts,” Meller says. He, more than most, understands how a single move can cause the whole dynamic of the board to shift. Game on.