Scrabble dabbler turns into local champ

West Windsor resident is top ranked in New Hope tournament.

By: Shanay Cadette
   WEST WINDSOR — Jim Housell is ranked first going into the Book Cellar’s annual Scrabble Invitational, but he won’t even be there to compete.
   Just like last year, the West Windsor resident will be busy moving equipment and assembling audio equipment at a Japanese animation convention in Baltimore.
   Go figure — a guy’s tournament ranking goes from last to first in a year and he won’t even be around to defend his record.
   "I’m a little disappointed," said Eric Maywar, the owner of Book Cellar, a New Hope, Pa., book store, who started the Scrabble contests about four years ago. "If Jim was (going to be) there, there was no doubt he was going to win. He’s got a photographic memory."
   Mr. Housell’s word-game opponents are now breathing a sigh of relief that they won’t have to compete against him at the Sunday invitational. Last year’s grand champion was Bucks County resident Alice Weber.
   Looking back, Mr. Housell said he sort of stumbled upon his new obsession with Scrabble.
   A systems administrator, Mr. Housell dropped by the Book Cellar in 2002 looking for a science fiction book. Someone invited him to play the crossword-style board game during one of the Scrabble nights held at the store and Mr. Housell agreed to come check it out the next time he visited. He showed up — and got trounced, he recalled.
   Now the 29-year-old is one of those "weird" people who plays Scrabble six times a week. By the end of 2002, Mr. Housell ranked last, but he still was invited to compete along with 15 other people in that year’s invitational.
   In 2003, Mr. Housell won 54 games with a batting average of .457 and had five of the top 12 game scores last year.
   "I still say it’s just luck," Mr. Housell said of his winning streak. "I have a good vocabulary and a good mind for words."
   Mr. Housell — a 1992 West Windsor-Plainsboro High School graduate — said he’s really no Scrabble expert. He just randomly remembers words or numbers he’s seen or read. For example, he once played the word "smilax" — which means a creeping, twisting vine — because he remembered seeing it on page 522 of the official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary.
   Mr. Maywar said Mr. Housell is too modest about his skills.
   "He’s a good bluffer. He’s a tough guy to play," Mr. Maywar said.
   Scrabble nights are held every Thursday and Friday at the Book Cellar, where people from all backgrounds gather to play the board game. This is the fourth year the bookstore will host a tournament. Sixteen people will sit at tables of four, competing for about $500 cash, gift certificates and prizes.
   Because Mr. Housell will be off in Baltimore, it’s hard to predict who will win Sunday. That "makes it exciting," Mr. Maywar said. "Now, it’s just a free-for-all."