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C-H-A-M-P: Meet Claudia Amaral, Argentine World Scrabble Champion

An interview with 2004 champ Claudia Amaral.

By | [email protected] | July 5, 2019 3:06pm

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Claudia Amaral, the 2004 Spanish World Scrabble Champion and three-time runner-up, likes to say that she was probably playing Scrabble in the womb.

Walking into her house, the entryway teems with relics of her fruitful competitive career. Amaral’s accomplishments in Scrabble run as an exhaustive list… and she’s got the hardware to show for it. Trophies and medals line the staircase, with her 2004 trophy standing in proud visibility. With her latest top individual finish coming in as the international runner-up of 2017, Amaral has won countless tournament titles at the regional, national, and world level.  What’s more: in 2018, she helped Argentina claim its first-ever “Nations Cup,” competing as one of five on the national squad (oh, and she was the first and only female to appear on the national team.)

But victory in Scrabble doesn’t come without putting in the work. Piled atop Amaral’s tables are stacks of Scrabble boards, bags of jingling letters, and Scrabble-specific timers. On the bookshelves are countless dictionaries, marked with indecipherable color-coded systems, which she uses as study aides for recalling hundreds of words.  

In the last few weeks, Amaral has pulled out a few notebooks out from hiding to gear up studying for this weekend’s 23rd annual Argentine National Tournament which will be taking place at Centro Cultural San Martin. There, she’ll face high-level competition, like Luis Picciochi, with whom she is tied with as the Argentines with the most medalled finishes in the world tournament. A finish in the top fifteen would earn her a bid to qualify for the 2019 World Championships, which will be held this August in Panama.  

In anticipation of her tournament appearance, The Bubble sat down with Amaral, where she recapped her many competitive successes and shortcomings, explained her transition to teaching ventures, and divulged her multifaceted love for Scrabble.

Claudia Amaral (Photo by Rita Bianchini)

The Rise of Scrabble: A New Mental Sport

There are 90,000 words in the Spanish dictionary, but over 600,000 can score points in Spanish Scrabble (example: escribir can score points, but so can escribiendo. Only escribir is in the dictionary.) Amaral can remember words that you didn’t even know were words.  The capacity of her memory is a unique gift. While most of us can’t tell you where we put our glasses a few moments ago, Amaral can whip out a word that she studied months ago, as a move on the Scrabble board. She can remember the words with which she’s won and the words with which she’s lost.

But life without Scrabble? That’s something that she can’t recall.

She began playing Scrabble in her teenage years, as a recreational pastime with friends. But her competition days started later, in her mid-thirties, when she found out that there was a Scrabble Association in Argentina. The year was 1996, and the Asociación Argentina de Scrabble (AAS) was just starting to take hold, hosting monthly tournaments and practices. In its preliminary days, membership totaled less than fifty, with its practices in public spaces like bars and bookstores, and its tournaments exclusively in Buenos Aires. 

“At my first competitions, I still remember being full of emotion, trembling and feeling very nervous,” recalls Amaral.

The Argentine Association’s development coincided with the international growth of Spanish Scrabble. In 1997, the Federación Internacional de Scrabble Español (FISE) hosted its first world championship in Madrid. Amaral travelled to the competition with her close friend Carmen, recalling the experience as the first of many “incredible adventures.” Amaral’s finish in 1997 was unimpressive, but come 1998, at the next World Championships in Mexico City? Amaral walked away as the international runner-up.

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As the popularity of Scrabble increased, AAS and FISE began to skyrocket in their memberships. At first, FISE was comprised mostly of middle-aged women, but the competitive field began to grow. “Starting around 2003, lots of men began to play. The men are often very competitive, and they don’t have obligations to their families, so they can study with a lot of focus,” she notes.

The rise of technology also helped Scrabble’s popularity increase. Around 2001, Scrabble specific-apps with dictionaries started to appear; by 2005, large tournaments were streamed online, so people from all over could follow along and watch top-players make their moves. Tasks like organizing large tournaments, quickly scoring games, and ranking players across the world became easier. And most importantly: ways to play online emerged, and massive online Scrabble communities started to form.

But Amaral, working full time as a physical education teacher and raising three kids, wouldn’t let any new competition get in her way.

Dominating the Competitive Field: Strategies for Success

Especially during her first few years on the competitive circuit, Amaral took training for Scrabble very seriously. Before any major competition, she would buckle down around a month before competition—devoting more than four hours each day to studying.

Where to begin memorizing 600,000 words? Over the years, Amaral has developed mini-strategies to cram her mind with thousands of words. For starters, Amaral has her sets of color-coded dictionaries, highlighted, underlined, doted and starred. She also has notebooks that categorize words in different ways, so that they are easier to recall. Take Amaral’s notebook, labeled “apellidos.” In it, she writes down things like conventional first names and last names, or street names, which also double classify as “words” in Scrabble, given that they have multiple meanings. Her children’s names – Rita and Bruno- count as a valid move on the Scrabble board, for example. Even with new technology, designed to ease memorization, Amaral prefers her methods of meticulously writing words down in sets of notebooks.

A big tournament win demands countless hours of studying, but it also requires a fair share of luck. “There are lots of tournaments where you prepare a lot, and the luck just won’t be with you,” commented Amaral. With her good luck ritual in place before every major competition, Amaral calls herself a little bit superstitious. Each important tournament, she prepares a special new notebook, which she uses to track the tiles that could possibly remain inside the draw bag for each game. And wearing new underwear before a big game day? That’s a must, too.

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In a typical tournament, one day of match play entails six games, each an hour long. Success requires maintaining both focus and mental sharpness. But it also necessitates having a strong emotional reserve—not getting frustrated from one match to the next, if things don’t go your way or if you regret making a poor move. “If you have terrible luck with the letters, you’ll be so angry to the point where you can’t focus,” said Amaral. During the fifteen minutes between matches, Amaral typically uses the time for a quick venting session—she’ll disperse with other players and get out any emotions, to be fresh for the next match.

Surely, Amaral’s massive studying efforts and ritualistic practices have brought her success. She’s consistently dominated the Scrabble field for the last twenty-plus years: 2004 world title, 2009 runner-up, and 2017 runner-up.

But, a long competitive career in Scrabble – perhaps just like any other game – comes with its ups and downs. Careless mistakes, such as thinking a letter was a “blank” when there was a Q on the other side, still stick with her. Once, at a tournament, she had seven letters that she couldn’t piece together, but felt that there was a word at her fingertips.  

That night, she woke up at 3 AM screaming “ACEITADO!”

And while Amaral has been to every international tournament but two, her commitment to competition has ebbed and flowed. When Scrabble becomes too competitive, Amaral’s desire to compete waivers, and she’ll take a step back. The expenses of traveling and the demands of raising children also have influenced her decisions to enter tournaments. 

Nonetheless, Amaral’s devotion to Scrabble far from faltered. Instead, it has morphed into a new sort of fervent commitment: spreading the game as far as she can.

Teacher and Entrepreneur: Proyecto Cráneos

When Amaral began teaching Scrabble in 2009, it was not a formal endeavor. Post-competition, she began helping her fellow players review their games, patiently instructing them on how they could have made more strategic moves.

Enjoying her experiences working with other competitors, the idea of coordinating community events took hold. In 2010, she organized her first community-oriented event in a cultural center, called Buenos Aires Letra a Letra. The more Amaral began teaching, the more she garnered a new appreciation for the game of Scrabble, and how it could harness positive change in different communities.

“I started to have dreams with Scrabble, and see it as a tool, and a way of working with knowledge,” said Amaral. After organizing more free workshops, she began to fight to expand the scope of her events to as many cultural centers as possible. She conceived creative ways to bring scrabble to different communities, considering school children and the elderly.

Come 2014, Amaral coined a formal name for her enterprise: Proyecto Cráneos. Amaral transitioned her career to revolve around her new venture. Now working part-time as a massage therapist, Amaral has found ways to make a living from Scrabble, too. “I work with both extremes—the physical body and the mind,” she laughs.

Day in and day out, Amaral works to spread Scrabble’s reach as far as it can go. Proyecto Cráneos is centered on bringing Scrabble to elderly populations, young adolescent schoolchildren, the blind, exchange students, religious communities, and more. Amaral’s deep appreciation for the game—how it can improve one’s mental cognition, increase both vocabulary and confidence, and generate social relationships—has translated into an entrepreneurial endeavor.

Expanding Proyecto Cráneos has been an uphill battle: Amaral has encountered challenges obtaining government funding, and receiving support from the AAS organization. Nonetheless, she’s had ample victories: in 2014, Proyecto Cráneos claimed first prize in the National Entrepreneurship for Mothers. Now, she’s brought her workshops to five cultural centers across the city and anticipates implementing more workshops in schools. Currently, Proyecto Cráneos comprises six workshop programs: for older adults, in cultural centers, in education settings, for sports teams, for Scrabble in companies, and preventative and therapeutic sessions.

In fact, this Saturday marks a big win for Amaral: there will be the first-ever match featuring blind players that has been hosted by the Asociación Argentina de Scrabble (AAS). Using a braille-friendly board, three blind players – whom Amaral has trained – will face three players from the AAS, for an exhibition match at the Argentine National tournament. It was Amaral’s undertaking to make this match a reality.

When Amaral started teaching Scrabble, she anticipated that it may aid her own studying. But the two are not necessarily complementary, since her level of play is often markedly above her students. For Amaral, teaching Scrabble “requires a completely different mentality” versus competing. As a teacher, Amaral must relinquish her “in it to win it” mindset and help each student improve. And while the transition between teaching and playing can be rough, success in teaching, albeit not as tangible as a medal, is just as rewarding.

In fact, it’s so rewarding that she can’t even find the words for it. When asked “why do you love Scrabble?” she pauses.

Then comes her final answer:

“I love it so much, that I never need to ask myself why I love it.”