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.
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."
"I thought it would be fun," Neal said on his reason for joining the club. "I wanted to try something new."
A similar feeling motivated Thomas Ensey to join the Scrabble club at Our Lady of Victory School five years ago.
Ensey won his division Saturday at UMBC with a score of 1353, the first time he has reached that scoring milestone according to cross-tables.com, the website for competitive scrabble.
He is currently ranked 652nd in the country and 19th in Maryland, according to the website.
"It's really educational," said Ensey, now a junior at Mount Saint Joseph High School. "We'll be reading Shakespeare and come across some of the old words that they use and I'll think, 'Oh. That's a Scrabble word.'"
He admitted his Scrabble experience helps more than just in the classroom or when he is playing "Words with Friends," the popular word game for Facebook and i-Phone.
He has also won more than $1,000 in tournaments, he said.
That tournament success began while he was an eighth-grader at Our Lady of Victory when he and classmate Rachel Backert competed in the national Scrabble tournament that Hasbro, the game's manufacturer hosts every year in Florida.
The pair finished fifth, said Sharon Moser, then the leader of the club at Victory who is now trying to start a similar club at Notre Dame Prep, where she teaches Latin and French.
Moser said that in contrast to the situation at Our Lady of Victory, where she said the Scrabble club had grown to 140 students when she left several years ago, it has been a challenge building a club at her new school.
"We're trying to get it started. They're great girls, interested in learning. They (NDP students) have so many things going on, sports, (community) service. We have to sneak it (Scrabble) in during lunch or early in the morning," she said.
But the benefits from the game are many.
"Building of vocabulary skills, math skills," she said. "You also have to learn to work together with another child. And they have to learn to organize things in their head."
And when you're just starting out, a free backpack is a nice benefit as well.
Arbutus and Catonsville residents are welcome to join the Scrabble club that meets Monday evenings on campus. For information, email Linda Oliva a email@example.com.