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RSS feature story: Iowa's top-rated Scrabble player--a Decorah resident--is now a "Scrabble Expert"

Posted: Tue, Sep 15, 2020 2:45 PM

There are only 169 people in North America who have been given the title of "Scrabble Expert."  Decorah resident Mike Johnson--an associate professor of mathematics at Luther College--is one of them.

Johnson received the news just last Thursday.  The award was based on his performances over the last five years at competitive Scrabble tournaments.  He now becomes the only Iowa player to hold the title of "Scrabble Expert." 

Johnson tells he started playing in Scrabble tournaments while going to grad school in Philadelphia in 2009.  He says he was attracted to Scrabble because "its games are very mathematical."  In fact, his classroom lectures at Luther now are often sprinkled with references to Scrabble.

A Scrabble tournament--as opposed to playing against your family at home--uses a chess clock which gives each player a total of 25 minutes to make moves in a game or face a penalty.  At a tournament, a score between 300 points to 500 points is typical, says Johnson, although he has occasionally scored higher than that.  "You're trying to balance what you can score versus what your opponent can score," he says, stressing that making defensive moves to limit the number of opportunities your opponent has can be very important.

The Bible of Scrabble competitions is the Scrabble dictionary, which comes in a North American English version, which has 192,111 words, and a Global English version, which has 279,496 words.

COVID-19 has suspended most Scrabble tournaments for now, but Johnson still hosts online tournaments every Thursday night, with people from all across the United States playing and even an occasional international player or two. 

Unfortunately, the Scrabble Expert title did not come with a huge trophy he could use to intimidate other players.  Johnson doesn't seem to mind.  It's "a recognition" of his Scrabble abilities and that's e-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-t news to him.