Even by 10-year-old standards, Ian Whitehurst is a modest kid.
The Ridgefield resident has plenty of reason to brag though — on July 26, Ian and his partner Kevin Zeng of Scarsdale, N.Y. were named the top-scoring, elementary-level Scrabble players in North America.
“The boys were first of over 200 competitors across the U.S. and Canada,” said Cornelia Guest, Ian’s Scrabble coach.
Ian and Kevin’s win was announced at the annual North American Scrabble Championship in New Orleans. The largest Scrabble competition in North America, the championship is organized by a non-profit licensed by Hasbro (who owns the North American copyright to Scrabble), and has been held since 1978.
Ian, who will be a fifth-grader this year when he attends Farmingville Elementary School, said it takes “a lot of time and effort” to be a Scrabble champion.
“Normally, I just sit down and play and, when I see the words, I try to remember them,” he said.
Although he practices weekly, Ian says Scrabble is still a fun game to play.
He has only played the classic vocabulary board game for two years at a competitive level. At least some of his rise to the top can be attributed to Guest’s coaching — several of her previous teams have gone on to compete in and win national Scrabble competitions.
Guest said she has coached Scrabblers out of the Ridgefield Library “for about 10 years,” though she now mentors out of the CVS.
Ian’s family, originally from Boston, has lived in Ridgefield for the past four years. Charles Whitehurst, Ian’s father, said that about two years ago, Ian’s mother saw a post in town for Guest’s Scrabble lessons.
“We’re very regular to the library,” Whitehurst said, “so a lot of the librarians know Ian… he’s quite a book reader, too.”
Does the North American Scrabble champion for his age group have any favorite authors?
“Every single one, I like,” said Ian emphatically.
His father elaborated that Ian enjoyed the Percy Jackson series, and Ian also listed Greek mythologies as a recent interest.
The letter ‘U’
While Guest explained that because Ian and Kevin’s winning score was accumulated over several games, there is no way to tell which word won them the top position. Ian did say his new favorite word is ‘ulu’ — a traditional knife used by the Inuit.
“U’s are very, very annoying,” Ian explained. “Ulu’ is a good way to get rid of two of them.”
Aside from simply memorizing vocabulary, Ian explained that he uses strategy to try to trap the other players with letters they cannot use to spell a word. Guest showed The Press a sheet of paper that the players use to scratch off their opponents’ letters, helping them whittle down their opponents’ vocabulary options.
“He’s very good at strategy,” Guest said.
Beating the clock
In competitive Scrabble, Ian plays by a timer, which was another skill he had to acquire.
“They’re sort of like chess clocks,” Guest said. “When the kids start out, we give them a cheat-sheet … though [Ian] doesn’t use those anymore.”
Aside from Scrabble, Ian is also a Webelo in Boy Scout Troop 26. And despite his affinity for words and love of reading, he says his favorite subject in school is math.
“We’ll play this game sometimes,” Whitehurst said about Ian’s ‘studying’ for Scrabble championships, “you know — how many words you think you can get from a license plate? He’s very quick, and he’ll see words that I don’t.”
Whitehurst pointed to a sheet of paper that Ian had taken notes on for a morning brain-teaser. From the town name of Ridgefield, Ian had scrambled the letters to come up with about 60 words he could use in a game of Scrabble.
Despite all the hard work, Ian says he has no plans to slow down.
“I’m definitely gonna keep playing,” he said.