Meet Jem and Cooper
We take a closer look at a few of the teams and players participating in this year’s North American School Scrabble Championship
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of competitive Scrabble is the players- many different personalities, play styles, clothing styles, and energies converging in a tournament room to do battle. School Scrabblers are no different, and we decided to take a closer look at a few of the teams and players participating in this year’s North American School Scrabble Championship.
One of the favorites to place at the top of the standings this year is ‘Lucky 13,’ comprised of Jem Burch and Cooper Komatsu, both 13-year-old young men from the Los Angeles area of southern California. Jem is a 7th grader, but this will be Cooper’s swan song from school SCRABBLE® as he is currently an 8th grader.
From left to right: Jem Burch and Cooper Komatsu
Both of these friends are fantastic players with sunny dispositions and although they have both placed highly in this event in previous years, this will be their first time partnering together at the NASSC. At last year’s NASSC, Jem finished in 5th place with his team and Cooper finished in 4th place with his team. The previous year Jem finished in 7th place with his team and Cooper finished 5th place with his team. Jem competes in adult tournaments and currently holds a 1397 rating. Cooper also competes as an adult and currently holds an 1168 rating. Quite impressive.
When asked about early SCRABBLE® memories, Jem responds, “I remember the first time I exceeded three hundred points in a single game. I was ecstatic!” Cooper said, “When I was 5 years old, my mom and I would play together at home as a team to get the most collective points. When I got better we started playing against each other instead of with each other… I was really proud of myself when I was 7 and found the word “QUAIL” for 81 points and was excited to realize that I could get better if I kept playing.”
We asked how they got into competitive play. “I continually beat my parents, and they decided that I needed more challenging opponents. My mom discovered a Scrabble club nearby, and through that we heard about organized tournament play,” said Jem, “I participated in a tournament (it wasn’t a school Scrabble tournament) in the same division as my friend Cooper. I placed fourth with four wins and three losses.” Cooper’s mom Deborah also supported her son’s blossoming interest. Cooper remembered, “I started going to the Scrabble clubs at age 6. I liked it because it was something fun I shared with my mom,” said Cooper, “I play in non-school tournaments 3-4 times a year. Last year I went to the Nationals for the first time. 31 games over the course of 5 days. It was great! I had fun getting to know the other kid players.”
On the subject of studying, Cooper shared with us that, “I play more than I study, and learn words as I go. I anagram a lot just to amuse myself. I use ZARF to check words and anagrams. I use QUACKLE to see if I am playing strategically.” In addition to utilizing resources such as, “The Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary, and Everything Scrabble, by Joe Edley and John D. Williams,” Jem confides that he will, “…create and solve puzzles, and play Scrabble with my friends. I love learning new and interesting words and creating anagrams… I just play Scrabble a lot and occasionally study lists of seven- and eight-letter words that I wrote.”
We asked Cooper what else he does to prepare for the tournament. “I play!” he said, “Occasionally I study 4s, stems and new words.” When we asked him about the competition he was straightforward and thoughtful, “I always go into a competition without expectations, just knowing I have done the best I could to prepare. There are many strong teams: Zach Ansell and Jonas Brown, Chloe Fatsis and Caleb Anderson, Matias Shundi and Javier Contreras, and Knox Daniel and Yanni Raymond. And there’s always a chance that an unknown will come to NASSC and surprise us all!” Jem added, “I think our chances are good this year. Both Cooper and I have always finished in the top 10, and this is our first time as a team. I look at all of the other teams as our competition.”
From left to right: Eli Shear-Baggish and Jem Burch competing at the 2015 NASSC.
Proudest moments as a player so far: Jem: “At last year’s school Scrabble Tournament, my partner, Eli, and I were in the middle of a game when Chris Cree walked past us. He happened to glance at our board, and it was clear he did a double take when he saw what we had played. Eli and I had found the double-double RETALIATE through L and the second A, and also the obscure IPOMOEA.” Also, “I was playing a game against my dad, and I had bingo-ed twice with INOSITES and QUARTES. The triple word score column was open, with an N in the fifth space, and my rack read ADDEEX? I was extremely happy to find a 203-point triple-triple in EXPANDED. It is the highest-scoring single play I have ever made.” Cooper: “It was great when my teammate Sheng Guo and I came in 4th place at the 2015 School Scrabble Championship. It was my partner’s last year to compete, so it was nice that we got to place so highly together.”
Left to right: John Chew (Tournament Director and NASPA Co-President), Cooper Komatsu, Conrad Basset-Bouchard (North American Scrabble Champion), Sheng Guo, and an unidentified Hasbro representative.
Cooper also explained, “Sharing the high moments and the low really makes it worth it. When I was playing in the Nationals (NASC) as an individual, the kid players would check in with each other during the game by giving secret codes - a stretch meant we were losing; leaning your head on your hand meant you winning; leaning your head on both hands meant you were winning by more than 50 points.”
When asked about their friends, Jem replied, “One of them always comes to each of my tournaments, and I am grateful for their support.” Cooper added, “It’s not something I can really share with my friends at school. However, Jem Burch (my partner this year) and Zach Ansell both live in Los Angeles and we have all become good friends. We get together to play socially.”
Of course parents naturally play a pivotal role in the lives of young adults, and we asked both players about the level of parental involvement and support that they experience. “They are very supportive, and I appreciate how committed they are to getting me to tournaments and other events,” said Jem. Cooper shared the sentiment, stating, “They are very supportive of me! My mom and I play for fun frequently. My dad has been studying and trying to get better so he can talk to me about words and strategy. I like that we can share this interest as a family.”
Of course, we would be remiss to neglect the opportunity to ask such skilled players what it takes to get to their level and what advice they have for beginning players. Cooper, after noting that ‘sportsmanship and perseverance’ were qualities important to develop, stated, “Keep playing and you’ll get better!” Jem reflected, “I think anyone can become a good Scrabble player if they try hard and do their best,” summing up his philosophy with, “Work hard and have fun.” Sage advice.
We followed up with a question having to do with what makes competitive SCRABBLE® such a worthwhile endeavor for such bright and busy individuals as themselves. “It teaches you about teamwork, cooperation, and good sportsmanship. Scrabble itself promotes spelling and mathematics,” said Jem. Cooper added, “It improves your ability think quickly and to strategize. It’s a hobby you can pursue for your whole life.”
Currently, Cooper’s favorite valid word is “quinzhee” (a shelter made by hollowing out a pile of snow). However, when faced with this question Jem revealed a little of his interesting relationship with words by responding, “Oh my. This is hard. I don’t really have a true favorite, but if I had to choose one I think it would be ISOHYET (a line on a map connecting points having equal rainfall), just because of the letter combination.”
Outside of competitive SCRABBLE® these two brilliant players both enjoy competing in the national spelling bee system as well. Congratulations to Cooper for recently beating out 94 other contestants to win the Los Angeles County Scripps Regional Bee for the second year in a row. After the 2016 NASSC he will be headed to National Harbor, Maryland in late May to compete again in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, where he placed an impressive 11th last year.
Cooper at Walter Reed Middle School after winning his regional bee for the second year in a row.
Also, congratulations to Jem for recently placing 3rd in his local qualifier for the national competition and for demonstrating exceptionally good sportsmanship towards his fellow competitors during the event. When not Scrabbling or spelling, Jem spends time playing basketball and ping-pong. He also reads, writes, and enjoys art. Cooper is a Boy Scout, and enjoys cross country and lego robotics.
As busy as they are now, we asked what the future might hold for them. We were thrilled and impressed with their responses. Cooper: “I’d like to continue to go to the “adult” tournaments. I might want to lead my own student Scrabble club in the future.” Jem: “I want to focus on writing after I’ve aged out. I just finished a novel and am in the process of writing another. But I expect Scrabble will always be a part of my life.” We hope so, and we hope that to be the case for all school Scrabblers!