W-I-N-N-E-R: NHS freshman crowned Scrabble champion in national contest

  • Evan Yurko, 14, who is a freshman at Northampton High School, studies his next move while playing his coach during a meeting of the Northampton Scrabble Club, Monday, Aug. 13, 2018 in the community room at Burger King in Northampton. He won in the Division 4 National Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Evan Yurko, 14, a freshman at Northampton High School, displays a trophy he won in the Division 4 National Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month during a meeting of the Northampton Scrabble Club, Monday in the community room at Burger King in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Evan Yurko, 14, left, a freshman at Northampton High School, talks to his coach, Ben Greenwood, during a meeting of the Northampton Scrabble Club, Monday, in the community room at Burger King in Northampton. He won in the Division 4 National Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Evan Yurko, 14, who is a freshman at Northampton High School, makes a word while playing his coach during a meeting of the Northampton Scrabble Club, Monday, Aug. 13, 2018 in the community room at Burger King in Northampton. He won in the Division 4 National Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Evan Yurko, 14, who is a freshman at Northampton High School, makes a word while playing his coach during a meeting of the Northampton Scrabble Club, Monday, Aug. 13, 2018 in the community room at Burger King in Northampton. He won in the Division 4 National Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Evan Yurko, 14, who is a freshman at Northampton High School, makes a word while playing his coach during a meeting of the Northampton Scrabble Club, Monday, Aug. 13, 2018 in the community room at Burger King in Northampton. He won in the Division 4 National Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 8/14/2018 12:21:16 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Nothing gets the adrenaline pumping for a Scrabble player like clearing all the tiles in a hand with a seven-letter word.

Yet the practice, a so-called “bingo” in Scrabble, is commonplace for Northampton High School freshman Evan Yurko. The 14-year-old recently used the strategy two times a game, on average, over the course of his 31-game romp to win the Division 4 National Scrabble Championship in Buffalo, New York, earlier this month. His best bingos of the tournament? Profiler and elegist.

Yurko beat out 57 other competitors of all ages — from 12 to mid-60s — nabbing a trophy and $1,500 to go with it.

The young Scrabble aficionado is a member of the Northampton Scrabble Club. Each Monday evening, he tests his skills at the club’s training facility in the community room of the Burger King on King Street. Despite being one of the youngest in the club, Yurko crushes those who dare challenge him, club members said Monday night.

“Everyone wants a crack at Evan now,” said Brett Constantine, a club founder.

Yurko said he began playing Scrabble as a child with his mother, Andrea, and joined the Scrabble Club at JFK Middle School when he grew tired of losing to her.

“I joined the Scrabble Club in sixth grade to beat my mom,” said Yurko. It didn’t take long for son to turn the tables on mom.

JFK Middle School teacher and Scrabble team coach Ben Greenwood, who is also a member of the Northampton Scrabble Club, is the only person in the club who Yurko said can consistently beat him. Greenwood also competed in the Scrabble tournament this month at a higher division.

“Evan was our last great player,” said Greenwood, who said he planned to have Yurko visit the school’s club next year to try and boost its popularity.

A year after joining the JFK club, Yurko started going to the Northampton Scrabble Club, according to Constantine, who said once Evan started “putting in the work” he knew he could be “plenty above average.”

Competition

The national competition is a 31-game tournament in which Yurko won 25 games. He was the only player in any division to win that many games, making him the winningest player in the tournament.

Yurko, who had all the tournament stats on his phone, beat his opponents by an average score of 416 to 357 and averaged around two bingos — when you play all seven letters and get a 50-point bonus — per game. Yurko said his best words of the tournament were profiler and elegist.

“People who are into Scrabble are often into statistics,” Greenwood said.

“It’s really a game of math,” added Constantine.

Yurko said Scrabble has made him aware of more words, but not necessarily what they mean.

“I know the word but I don’t know what it means,” Yurko said.

Despite his stellar record, Yurko said there were times in the tournament where he was nervous he would lose. He recalls one game where he was down 70 points and played “obverts” for a bingo to win the game. Similarly, Yurko was down by 20 points in the final game, and bingoed to win the tournament.

Yurko said he felt underestimated by competitors, as he was the second youngest player in the tournament. But when they saw what he could do, people took him more seriously.

Yurko said people came up to him after he won to offer congratulations, including the winner of the Division 1 tournament Joel Sherman, who told Yurko he had what it takes to compete and win in Division 1.

“It was a big deal for me,” said Yurko, on hearing from Sherman.

Yurko’s father, Chris Yurko, said he was amazed at his son’s ability to stay focused for so long and said he no longer plays Scrabble against his son.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve played Scrabble with Evan,” said Yurko, “I don’t think it would be fun for either of us.”

The elder Yurko, who used to work at the Gazette, said that as a writer, he has a great appreciation for words and the way his son works with them in Scrabble.

Despite playing 31 games in three days, Yurko spent part of the car ride home from Buffalo playing the game, his mom said.

On Monday evening, Yurko was back with the Northampton Scrabble Club, graciously accepting congratulations from the club’s other members and eager to play a game with his old coach and Scrabble mentor Greenwood.

During their game, Yurko and Greenwood discussed strategy, including using prefixes and suffixes and getting rid of Q’s and Z’s early. A rush of excitement ran through the room as Yurko played the words digerati and luvvie (“I study the double V words,” said Yurko).

Yurko said he loves Scrabble because of the community, but also because no two games are ever the same.

“Two games never start or end the same way,” Yurko said.

Thanks to his tournament victory, Yurkos national rating, which decides which division one plays in, skyrocketed by hundreds of points, making him eligible to compete in Division 3 at next year’s tournament.

For now, he’ll bask in the title of king of Divison 4 Scrabble.




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