Scrabble champ ushers in new wave of wordsmiths

Scrabble has been around since the Great Depression, but many of today's top competitors didn't grow up playing in living rooms. They got good by clocking in hours online, CBS News' Jim Axelrod reports.

The convention center hall in Buffalo, New York, was nearly silent, except for the snake-like rattle of tiles. More than 500 wordsmiths competed over five days in the 25th National Scrabble Championship.

"They come from every walk of life that you can imagine," said Chris Cree, president of the North American Scrabble Players Association. "Anything from nuclear physicists to cab drivers to teachers to just stay at home moms - everybody."

Basset-Bouchard squares off against an opponent
CBS News

This year's champion: 24-year-old Conrad Bassett-Bouchard, marking a departure from the older generation of players who have traditionally dominated the popular board game.

Bassett-Bouchard has been playing competitive Scrabble for almost a decade, honing his skills online.

"I played 10,000 games online before I even went to a tournament, so I knew my two-letter words. I knew my three-letter words without even realizing that I needed to," Bassett-Bouchard said.

For a game that's all about strategy, those two- and three-letter words are key.

At the living-room level, it's a word game, and at the tournament level, it's a math game.

There are 100 letter tiles in a Scrabble game - the more common the letter, the lower the point value. The vowels A, E, I, O and U are all worth one point. More obscure letters like Q and Z are worth 10.

"You can be a person with a big vocabulary that who reads a lot, who knows a lot of words, but you may not know very arcane words that are handy in Scrabble," said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster.

Bassett-Bouchard played a confident final round, opening with the word "zilch," which earned him 52 points.

It was an emotional win for a man who has grown up within the Scrabble community.

"I don't call them my Scrabble friends anymore. They're just my friends, and we're, you know, to some degree we're one big happy family," Bassett-Bouchard said.

The younger generation is making its imprint on the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary as well.

Earlier this month, Merriam-Webster added 5,000 new words, including "hashtag," "frenemy" and "selfie."

But these words won't be allowed in competitive play until December.