Scrabble competition at UMBC

Neal Kewalramani, left, an eighth-grader at Arbutus Middle School, jots down his score while playing against Carlton Moss III, a third-grader at Church Creek Elementary in Harford County. The Catonsville resident needed every point he could get as he won, 170-169, in the youth division opening round of the Baltimore Scrabble Tournament Feb. 4 at UMBC. (Staff photo by Brian Krista / February 6, 2012)

Neal Kewalramani admitted he felt a little nervous about taking part in Saturday's Baltimore Scrabble Tournament at theUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But words didn't fail the eighth-grader at Arbutus Middle School.

The Catonsville resident left the tournament, which attracted more than 50 players ranging in age from students to senior citizens in several divisions, with a certificate and school backpack as the winner of the youth division.

Arbutus Middle School classmates Davis O'Keefe and Anna Self also took part in the competition, along with two sixth-graders and a seventh-grader from Notre Dame Preparatory School, in Towson ,and a third-grader from Church Creek Elementary School, in Harford County.

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The Arbutus students are among 10 members of the new club at the school on Shelbourne Road led by Linda Oliva, a teacher in the education department at UMBC and a competitive Scrabble player for 12 years.

"This is our first year and we're growing," said Oliva on the club, which began in the fall. "The kids that are in it really love it."

"It (playing Scrabble) really fosters a love and appreciation of words, " she said. "Also logic and math."

Oliva pointed out the game is one in which age is not always an advantage.

"They (her students) love playing adults and they love beating adults," she said. "Kids really love this game. It's a game where you can become a lot better very quickly. And they enjoy learning new words and making great plays."

Having played the game with her father was one of the reasons she joined the club, Anna Self said.

"I thought it would be fun," said the Catonsville resident. "There are so many words I don't know."

Dave Engelhardt, one of the tournament organizers, pointed out some words used in the game are rarely, if ever, used by the players away from the board.

"They'll play words not knowing what they mean, just knowing that that it's a word," he said.

He added that "za," short for "pizza," had recently been added to the Scrabble dictionary, for example, but few, if anyone, uses that word in conversation.

"That was a really big word change," he said. "It's the only two-letter 'z' word that exists."

Familiarity with those types of words is key for success, said Davis O'Keefe.

Knowing a lot of two-letter words, and coming up with a bingo word, "when you use all the letters in your tray," are the hallmarks of a good player, he said.

The Foxhall Farms resident's decision to join the club was a surprise, said his mother.

Lisa O'Keefe said her son's fondness for video games, and the fact that "he's not a very good speller," made his choice of an after-school activity an unexpected one.

"I like Scrabble," Davis said. "I like strategy games."