Field Notes: Got a Way with Words? Test Your Skill Against These Scrabble Pros
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vibrant and varied scenes and subcultures. This month: the Honolulu Scrabble Club.
photos: kent nishimura
What it is
Scrabble enthusiasts get together by the fountain at Kāhala Mall every Wednesday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. for friendly matches of the popular board game. Many group members have been meeting and playing together for years, although Scrabble players of all skill levels are welcome, including people who just stop by while shopping.
“At one point, we had close to 20 people. Now it’s about 10 or 12,” says Claire Durham. She’s one of the club’s organizers, along with Darren Seu, who keeps track of the points and prepares the games for each round.
These Scrabble players are pros, but it’s not all 10-dollar words here. Durham’s current game has plenty of short ones: JOY, ZAG, OX, COKE—plus a very relevant word in recent months, VOG. Over the years, the official Scrabble list of approved words has begun to include Hawaiian entries, such as POI, LUAU, WAHINE. “HULA, of course. And I think AHI and ONO,” says Durham.
The founders are Giveon and Marion Cornfield, who started the club in 1972 with gatherings in the Waikīkī Library. The club’s next casual residency for many years, before the bookstore closed, was Barnes & Noble at Kāhala Mall. Now, they meet at the fountain.
“Some of us also play Words With Friends. What’s good about it is you learn to play fast,” Durham says.
Andrew Reis, another player, chimes in: “Words With Friends is ruining this game. Let’s just say there are mixed feelings among this group about that game.”
Scrabble Club sessions are held January through November, then go on break because Kāhala Mall needs the real estate back for the holidays. Instead of competing, Reis is joining Durham’s family for Thanksgiving this year and, later, the group will throw its regular Christmas party.
Lifelong Scrabble partners
Giveon and Marion have lived in Hawai‘i for more than 30 years but they’re originally from Tel Aviv, Israel. They previously lived in California and Canada, where they ran a record company, producing classical recordings of music from the Renaissance. As a newlywed couple, Scrabble helped bring them together.
“We saw Scrabble in a store in 1952 and purchased it. We still play three games every night,” says Marion. They have been married for 71 years. They’re both 91 years old, which makes them older than their favorite board game, trademarked in 1948.
“In high school, my math teacher said not to go out with [Giveon] because I was a scholarship student and he was a bad egg. Should I have listened to him?” Marion asks. Giveon shrugs. “Well, he’s dead. And we’re still swimming.”
Rules of the game
Simply: two people per game, three games a night, with a 10-minute break between matches. The first round begins at 6:30 p.m., the next at 7:30, and the last at 8:30.
Groups are organized by skill; Seu tallies the points at the end of each game and pairs people together based on similar scores for that night. He also keeps a running score of points accumulated week after week, for six months of gatherings from January to June and July to December.
The champion for the group’s most recent six-month session: Tom Singleton, who won 36 out of 41 games, scoring roughly 428 points per game. (A casual player might average 200–250 points a game.)
Here’s a roundup of some of the most impressive, highest-scoring words that Scrabble Club players have used. Keep in mind that a word like CAT is worth five points, with no premium squares in play, HAWAII is 12 points, and using all seven letters earns a 50-point bonus:
MENTORED, 140 points (Andrew)
EXPANSES, 123 points (Darren)
BORROWING, 106 points (Tom)
JESTING, 97 points (Reynaldo)
SILKIER, 95 points (June)
GOITERS, 84 points (Marion)
Claire Durham, “over 75”
Retired IT specialist for Bank of Hawai‘i, Kāne‘ohe
“My ex and I opened a store in Pearlridge called ‘Chairman of the Board,’ right next to Macy’s. In those days, Dungeons & Dragons was big. Me, I’m happy with Scrabble.”
Andrew Reis, 31
Writer and editor, Kailua
“I gain so much insight from being around such wise people. Generally, I think that the meaning of my life is to learn and I do a lot of it here.”
Giveon & Marion Cornfield, 91
Retired record producers, Hawai‘i Kai
“It keeps us busy. And thinking, because at our age … you just told me your name and I forgot!”