“I know a good 95 per cent of two- and three-letter words”: This Toronto teen just won an international Scrabble competition
Word whiz Ruth Li made history by dominating the North American School Scrabble Championships, becoming the first girl to claim the top spot
Ruth Li is a Grade 12 student at Bloor Collegiate Institute and, as of last week, an internationally acclaimed Scrabble whiz. She crushed the competition at the North American School Scrabble Championships in Washington, DC—nine wins, no losses. She also made history as the first woman to nab the top spot. Li spoke with us about the strategy that clinched her victory, the three-letter word that almost sunk her and which swear words are allowed in competitive play.
How does life as an international Scrabble champ compare with your previous existence as a regular high school student?
Well, the tournament was in Washington, so after my win I spent two days in the car driving back to Toronto—not very glamorous. The most rewarding part has been the feedback I’ve received from other young women at the competition. They were so supportive. When I got home, my family celebrated at Banjara, an Indian restaurant on Bloor, and some of my old teachers reached out to my mom to say congratulations. I didn’t tell a lot of people about my win—only close friends.
So you keep your Scrabble-shark status on the down low?
It’s exciting, but the timing of the tournament coincided with exam season and university applications. I was glad to turn my focus back to those.
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Did you go into the competition thinking you were going to win?
Definitely not. I came in seventh last year. My only goal was to improve on that. Actually, after realizing what a talented field it was, I adjusted my expectation to the top ten. Every time I played, I was thinking: When am I going to lose? It wasn’t until I had won the seventh of my nine games that I understood how close I was. I was guaranteed a spot in the finals.
Does the competition get pretty intense at that point?
My opponent in the last match was extremely skilled. I’d watched him put down the word “biometer” in an earlier game. I thought, Wow, that is just so impressive.
What makes a word impressive to a Scrabble player?
If it’s one that other people may not know or that has letters that don’t get used much. But we also think about words in terms of probability, which means considering how often letters come up in the English language and in the tile collection. You have a lot of Es, As, Ts and Ns, for example. A lot of players, including myself, memorize the most probable seven- and eight-letter words. We call them bingo words. Retains is one, because all of its letters are common. The most probable word in English Scrabble is aileron. It has a French origins and is related to planes. Even though it’s rare in regular conversation, it’s well known by competitive players, so if I saw it go down on a board, I wouldn’t immediately be intimidated.
Whereas biometer was like, Oh, crap.
It suggests that the player has a very large arsenal of words. Biometer is eight letters, and usually players train on seven-letter words first. If they’re playing eight-letter words, it means they have those shorter words mastered, which is scary.
And yet you emerged triumphant. Any idea what gave you an edge?
In the past, my goal has been to beat my opponent by a huge margin, like 200 points. But, at this tournament, my strategy was just to win—even if it was only by ten points. I focused on mitigating risk. For example, playing a good word instead of a great word because it would block off a big section of the board.
When were you most worried about losing?
During my seventh game, I tried to put down sog, which is not a word. Meanwhile, I had an A tile and could have played sag.
You must have been kicking yourself.
It was tricky. Another part of my strategy was to be more confident in my word knowledge. I wasn’t totally sure that sog was a word, but I thought I was being paranoid. Turns out, I wasn’t. It was removed, but luckily I was able to play sag on the next turn.
Is memorizing short words part of your strategy?
Yes. I’d say I know a good 95 per cent of two- and three-letter words, but it depends on the dictionary. The one for Scrabble is different because it doesn’t include any offensive terms, like slurs or certain swear words.
Could you play ass?
Yes, but only because it’s also a donkey.
Were there ever any early signs of your potential as a Scrabble whiz?
I don’t think I was a prodigy kid. I took chess lessons—most Chinese kids dabble in chess—but I wasn’t particularly good. I read a lot, but I don’t know if that’s as applicable to Scrabble as people think. Scrabble is about words, but when you’re playing competitively, it’s also about measuring probabilities. I’ve always been good at math, which helps. I started playing competitively in elementary school with a friend. In our first game together—you play in pairs until grade eight—we won by a wide margin.
And were you hooked?
I enjoyed feeling like my partner and I were on the same wavelength. I love winning and competing, but my favourite part of Scrabble is knowing that I can see a word when others can’t.
When you won the recent championship, you became the first young woman to do so. What did that feel like?
I was surprised that it had never happened before. I think one reason is because young women and girls aren’t encouraged to take on competitive hobbies. With Scrabble clubs specifically, I’m not saying the boys are necessarily unwelcoming, but if you’re a girl walking into a room that’s all boys, it can be intimidating. Things are improving, though. There were a lot of woman competitors at the tournament this year—I definitely won’t be the last young woman to win it.
You mentioned applying to university. I’m guessing Scrabble champ will look pretty good on your applications?
Unfortunately, they were already finished by then, but I’ve received offers from two schools—McMaster and the University of Waterloo. Both have excellent programs for biomedical engineering, which is what I want to study. I’m interested in the development of medical devices, like hip implants or prosthetics.
Does either school have a Scrabble club?
You know, I’m not sure. I guess I can check. I would like to continue playing Scrabble, but probably not at the same level. I don’t have to be the best person in the room, but I would like to keep up my skills.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.