Matthew O'Connor: Junior World Scrabble Champion 2017
Scrabble's newest superstar talks to the Academy.
Matthew O’Connor set the Scrabble world alight during the recent Junior World Scrabble Championship in Nottingham. At one stage, it looked as though he was going to charge through the competition undefeated. That didn’t quite happen, but his 15 game unbeaten streak will live long in the memories of all those in attendance. He clinched the title with a game to spare, winning 20 games and losing only 4 against a high class field of entrants from around the world.
He wasn’t able to stay for the adult version of the championship this year, and many of the game’s big-hitters would have breathed a sigh of relief about that, as this is a remarkable young player destined to go to the very top of the game.
The Academy was delighted to grab a few words with the new Champion.
Tell us a little about yourself, Matthew.
I'm 18 years old and from Syracuse, New York. I'm about to be a sophomore [a second-year student] at Skidmore College, going for a computer science degree - hoping to become a programmer.
How long have you been playing Scrabble, and what piqued your interest in the game?
I have been playing Scrabble against my Mom since I was 4 but I started tournaments when I was 8. I won a couple of youth events, and started winning Division 1 tournaments in 2013.
I always liked the strategic element of finding the best way to score points.
How do you study/practice for Scrabble?
Cardbox for the longer words. For the 4s, which I'm pretty good on, I just went through a printed list, circled the ones I didn't know, and then repeated.
That said Moiz Ullah Baig and Abdullah Abbasi both taught me 4s I didn't know last weekend. Moiz played HARO and Abdullah played HOKA. I'm sure I'd seen them both at some point but they seemed completely foreign to me. It was single challenge, so I obviously challenged, but I definitely would have challenged in five point too.
Leading into this tournament, I was studying words for 3-4 hours a day, but I'm gonna keep it to like an hour when school starts!
What was your favourite game at Nottingham?
Well, the one that clinched me the tournament! It was a good game too. I played GOATEEs PETAbYTE and UNANELED. This was the penultimate game, so I clinched the championship with 1 to go.
I also played VERLIGTE earlier in the tournament against Abdullah.
[Matthew (right) collects the trophy from 2016 World Champion, Brett Smitheram]
At one time, it looked as though you were going to win it easily, but the gap began to close. Did you start feeling nervous?
Yeah, especially after I blew a completely winnable game to Abdullah. If I’d recounted the game correctly, I would have tied - but I think the loss actually ended up helping me in the long run because with the tie there were other people with a minuscule chance of catching me that I was paired against instead of just Moiz - like I played Ali Rashid instead of Moiz or Sohaib Sanaullah in round 18. He was 5 games behind me with 5 to go.
In the States, I’m presuming you started playing Scrabble using TWL [North America uses a different dictionary to the rest of the world]. Do you prefer playing using the Collins dictionary?
Yeah. I didn't play Collins until 2014 when TWL was about to get updated. I switched with the goal of eventually playing in one of these championships. Collins has far more words which adds to mathematical complexity. I think there's more of a ‘metagame’ [strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset].
So what's next, Scrabble-wise? Do you plan on winning the World Scrabble Championship one day?
That would be nice! I have plenty of American tournaments to play in but if the Junior Championship is under 21 and in a reasonable location, I'll come back and defend that title. My next tourney is this weekend in Ottawa, Canada.
Matthew, thank you for talking with us. Have a great trip to Canada, and enjoy your reign as Junior World Champion.
[Matthew with fellow members of Team USA. From left, Dustin Brown, Brad Robbins, Matthew O'Connor and Joshua Castellano]