Each month, in the Spotlight On column in the NASPA News, Mike Willis provides a broader biography of notable Scrabble players. This profile of NASPA CEO John Chew first appeared in the November 8, 2018, issue.


A Brilliant Mind

John Chew was born in Buffalo (NY) – not far from the site of the 2014 and 2018 NASPA Championships. He says of the day, “I was born just past noon on the day my obstetrician predicted. Or would have been, had someone taken the time to explain to me about Daylight Saving Time.”

John speaks of his parents: “My father is an emeritus professor of linguistic anthropology, a polyglot, with previous careers in the Foreign Service Institute (he phoneticized Kennedy’s Berliner speech), and as a code clerk for Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

“He played a lot of board games with me when I was young, inspired me to learn a few languages better than he did, and made sure the corners of the dining table were always stacked with dictionaries that we could use to explore the origins of obscure words.

“My mother is a retired Japanese language instructor born in Tokyo and raised during the WWII firebombing of that city. She made sure that I was fluent in Japanese and always appreciated that side of my heritage.”

John relates his childhood and education: “I thought for some time that I appeared intelligent because I was somewhere on the autism spectrum. Recently, I have been thinking that it might instead have been due to the adaptive effects of being at the extreme aphantasiac end of the visualization spectrum.

“I entered grade school a year early, attended a high school for gifted students, completed an undergraduate degree in mathematics, computer science, and classical studies, and a master’s degree in mathematics. I am still ABD on my Ph.D.

“I think my education is still an ongoing process, so I don’t feel as though I am the same person that I was 10 or 20 years ago. I value my skill set and the opportunities that it gives me and am always looking to expand it.”

John has been married to his wife, Kristen, for 19 years. Together they have two sons, Jamie, 14, and Liam, 11. He has intentionally devoted more time to his family, and less time to his career, than many of his peers because of the emotional reward it provides.

Photo Credit: NASPA/Patty Hocker

That is not to say that he does not stay busy, however – he relates: “In addition to currently being a co-president of NASPA, itinerant Scrabble consultant, software developer, research mathematician, and translator, I have in the past been a full-time student and a full-time computer programmer – sometimes at the same time.”

John recounts getting into Scrabble: “I played online on LambdaMOO and ScrabbleMOO with Adam Logan and Steven Alexander in 1993. They encouraged me to visit my local club in Toronto (NASPA Club #3), where I found I fit in well. When then Toronto director Mike Wise died only 5 years later, I was honoured to be asked to take over many of his roles.”

When asked for some Scrabble tales that involved him, John replied: “I used to play Scrabble with Sherrie Saint John on long car trips, with a pegboard travel set propped up on her dashboard, with me driving. We stopped when the engine caught fire, and I was thinking too much about my next bingo to notice.”

Also – “At NSC 1994, I’m walking to a restaurant called THAI PLACE with Adam Logan and Steven Alexander.

  • I say, ‘The name of the restaurant has an anagram.’
  • Adam says, ‘Yes, it does.’
  • After a brief interval, Steven says ‘HEPATICAL!’
  • Then simultaneously, Adam says ‘No’ and I say ‘Yes.’
  • Adam then gently explains that HEPATICAL# is Chambers-only.” (Can you find the 1 TWL anagram?)

He spoke of his highlights while playing:

  • “I’ve played two twelves: EXTRA-UTERINE and MENSTRUA-TION.
  • My highest-scoring word was JUNKIEST (266).
  • Zev Kaufman and I set a record in 1997 for highest-scoring tied tournament game at 502-502.
  • I have competed in one NSC (1994) and CNSC (1996) each, finishing in 2nd place in Division 2 and 10th place overall respectively.”

John has made so many contributions that have become mainstays of organized play: “I developed TSH, its scoreboard, the software used to report on major championships, the software that runs our rating system, all the software that is part of the NASPA website, club data management software, word study software, MarlDOoM, and various other miscellaneous projects.

“I have overseen the online presence of competitive Scrabble in North America since 1998 and represent much of its technical institutional memory in my capacity as NASPA co-president. I edit the tournament word list. I do much of the graphic design for NASPA, including its logo and other aspects of its corporate identity.

“I influence policy and think that I am the main person responsible for such innovations as an official long words list, a rating database that includes scores, and rated Collins games. I have run several hundred tournaments of all levels and sizes. I do a lot of Scrabble-related public interviews.”

Co-President of NASPA Chris Cree says of John: “John has proven to be my best ever business partner. His talents are known by most in the Scrabble community. He is continually contracted to direct tournaments around the world. I first worked with him at the 2006 Dallas Open. The following year we worked our first large event together: The Players Championship.

“When the NSA folded and Hasbro said ‘you are on your own,’ we were trying to determine what was to happen next. Many eyes were looking to me; my eyes went straight to him. For I knew establishing a Scrabble organization comfortable to the majority of players would be best possible with him.

“My family and I have gotten to know John, his wife, Kristen, and their boys, Jamie and Liam, very well over the years. Carla and I include them among our closest, dearest friends.”

NASPA co-presidents John Chew and Chris Cree help NASC director Art Moore present the big check to 2018 champion Joel Sherman in Buffalo (NY).  Photo Credit: NASPA/Patty Hocker.

John has these words for his fellow players: “Remember that everything that gets done in our organization gets done because a volunteer puts in the time to make it happen. If there’s something that you’d really like to see us doing that we aren’t already, please consider joining or starting a committee to build the association you want to be a part of.”

For the future of NASPA John wishes, “More younger people playing competitively, which will lead to more people of all ages playing.”

John, thanks so much for all you have done for Scrabble, and all that you continue to do. Your efforts have created a lot of success for the organization and contentment for so many players of the game who in one way or another use some of your handiwork.


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