David Eldar (right) during the 2023 Scrabble championship tournament. He defeated Harshan Lamabadusuriya (left) to win the tournament. (Photo/Forward-Courtesy NASPA)
David Eldar (right) during the 2023 Scrabble championship tournament. He defeated Harshan Lamabadusuriya (left) to win the tournament. (Photo/Forward-Courtesy NASPA)

The Jewish world champion of Scrabble shares his secrets on how to win the game

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Using words like zep and fyce, an Australian Jew named David Eldar became the world Scrabble champion last month in Las Vegas.

He was also world champ in 2017 and is now only the second player in history to win the title twice.

Eldar couldn’t say, off the top of his head, what his all-time highest-scoring word or highest game score was. But the final score was 480-439 in the last game of the best-of-7 World English Language Scrabble Players Association Championship. And his final word, on a board with words like kirtle and hoo, was the relatively mundane “women.”

Eldar, 33, grew up in Melbourne and attended a Jewish day school, the King David School. We talked about how he got started playing, Jewish words in the Scrabble world and how the rest of us can get better at the game. 

Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Did your Jewish background or upbringing have any impact on your Scrabble playing? 

No. I’m pretty much an atheist, progressive Jew. But a lot of Scrabble players are Jewish.

Tell me about you and your family. We don’t hear much about the Jewish community in Australia.

There’s not a lot of us. I grew up in Melbourne and lived here until I was 20. I just moved back after 10 years in London. My dad’s from Israel, my mom’s Australian. My grandparents are from Poland and Czechoslovakia. They moved here around the wartime.

How did you get started playing Scrabble?

I played a lot of word games with my dad. We used to play a game called Literati. It’s a Scrabble knockoff. I first played Scrabble in a club when I was 13. 

Did you show talent early? How do you go from being a kid who likes word games to being a champion?

I think I won one game and lost one game the first time at the club. I was not, like, incredible or anything. My first tournament was a month later. I won three games and lost three games. If you become really passionate, if you care about it, if you put a lot of time into it, you get good at it. I’d already spent so many hours playing word games that I was more proficient than most.

My 11-year-old cousin, who beat me at Scrabble with his twin brother, wants to know: How do you practice? How do you get better?

There’s two main aspects. How many words do you know, No. 1, and practicing your strategy, No. 2. You practice learning the words with a computer program. It’s a free flash card program called Zyzzyva. And the second aspect, for practicing strategy, you use a program called Quackle.

Are there lots of Hebrew or Yiddish words in Scrabble? How do they decide on spelling for a word like “schlep”?

Proper nouns like Hanukkah are not allowed, but hanukkiah is allowed. A word like “schlep” is a loan word, meaning a word we borrow from another language and make into an English word. I don’t write the dictionary, and the dictionary determines this stuff, but if something has more than one common spelling, both spellings are allowed. If I’m on top of my sh-t [Editor’s note: He is], I reckon you could spell it as shlep with one p, and also with two ps — shlepp — and also both of these with a c. The dictionary isn’t perfect, and I don’t think they have anyone Jewish on the committee, so there are lots of inconsistencies.

A few years ago, the game moved to ban offensive ethnic and racial terms that had previously been permitted. Jew was never allowed as a proper noun, but “jew,” as a lowercase verb meaning to cheat, was once OK. Is that now forbidden?

That’s not allowed.

How do you shake off a loss or a bad move? What’s your mindset?

My mindset is that, OK, that’s really upsetting, and when something bad happens, human nature is to get angry and play worse and try to mitigate it. My way is just like, I accept that that’s going to get in my head and now I play worse. I accept it and pass through it instead of fighting against it. I just let it be.

Do you prepare physically for tournaments — working out, eating certain things, meditation?

I play 10 or 15 hours of sport a week but it’s leisure.

How do Scrabble skills transfer to real life?

I guess they help with critical thinking and analytical thinking — basically any tasks that involve any competitive pursuit. Doing high-level competition translates in terms of mindset and how to think about things. I play tennis and padel (a mix of tennis and squash), and table tennis relatively seriously. You wouldn’t think Scrabble translates to those sports. But I find for me there’s a lot of overlap in thinking about competition, how to win, how to approach things.

If you get the first move in a game, is it horizontal or vertical?

I start vertically. Vertical players, there’s a bit of a joke that some people don’t like it, because most people start horizontally and there’s no reason to start vertically other than to annoy people.

What are your favorite two-letter words for Scrabble?

“Hi,” “OK” and “yo.”

Do you play other word games like Wordle or Words with Friends?

I don’t play Words with Friends. I play Scrabble online with other high-level players. My girlfriend makes me do Wordle. I do it in my head everyday. I basically have a strategy where I rule out most of the letters. I’m infinitely better at Wordle than the average person but I do it in a way that involves a lot more guesses but with the minimum thinking time.

What’s your favorite Wordle starting word?

Junky.

You won $10,000 for your championship win. That’s not enough to live on. Do you have a day job?

I’m in property management in Australia. It’s a family business.

What does the future look like for Scrabble? Is it popular with Gen Z and millennials? 

Over the last 10 years, Scrabble has been on a downturn. Basically the player population has been decreasing, though for the very first time, in the last year, it’s been increasing. There seem to be more people playing Scrabble and a lot of people watched the world championship when it was streaming on Twitch. A lot of it has to do with a dude called Will Anderson who has a great YouTube channel and streams on Twitch. I’m also on Twitch: twitch.tv/deldar182

Can you describe the concept of playing Scrabble using a restricted dictionary so nonprofessionals don’t have to grapple with obscure words?

When people watch high-level Scrabble, they only recognize a half or a quarter of the words. Maybe it would be more marketable if you looked at the board and everyone knew exactly what every word meant. So a few people banded together and wrote a dictionary like that, which can be used on the online platform Woogles.io. You set the dictionary to CEL — common English lexicon — and every word you play, you’ll know.

I assume you’ve memorized the Scrabble dictionary. Do you have to keep learning new words and refreshing your memory, or once you know it, do you always know it?

It’s 2023 so everything is digital. Any kind of practice I do is digital, but I have memorized massive portions of the dictionary with varying degrees of success — not the physical dictionary, but I’ve essentially memorized large numbers of the words allowed in Scrabble — including all the correct spellings of “schlep.”

You can watch all the games in the championship tournament here.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Beth Harpaz
Beth Harpaz

Beth Harpaz is a reporter for the Forward. She previously worked for the Associated Press, first covering breaking news and politics, then as AP Travel editor. Follow her @literarydj or email [email protected].