Swift with Words: The thrill of the chase

Dr. Orrin Swift


Success: /səkˈses/ noun 1. The accomplishment of an aim or purpose. 2. The good or bad outcome of an undertaking.
Dr. Orrin Swift, associate professor of accounting, has always relished in language. It all started with spelling competitions in the second grade. In high school, Swift wrote every word in the dictionary, memorizing line after line of each spelling. His goal? To win the Texas state UIL spelling competition and the scholarship that went along with the championship title. And he did just that. Afterward, Swift said he felt stricken with a feeling of futility. Would all this knowledge go to waste? That’s when he entered the world of competitive Scrabble and discovered a new outlet for his passion.
“I remember getting home my senior year of high school and Googling ‘Scrabble tournament in Houston’ since I lived nearby, and to my surprise, there was a competition happening the following month,” he said.
With no experience, other than playing a few games with his grandmother during the summer, Swift entered the Scrabble competition. After going head-to-head with players in the bottom division, he won. From that moment on, he was hooked.

His new hobby, he said, culminated into a more serious obsession during his junior year at Baylor University.
“I remember one summer, I wasn’t taking any classes, I was just working and, admittedly, I wasn’t doing much during my shifts,” he said.
Swift found a way, though, to keep his idle hands occupied by studying the Scrabble dictionary and making flashcards –– 30,000 seven-letter words later, he entered his next Scrabble competition and took home the prize of $3,000.

It’s often said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at just one thing. The same can be said for Scrabble. After more than 126 Scrabble competitions, and hundreds of thousands of words later, Swift has earned what’s known in the Scrabble world as grandmaster level –– bestowed upon a player of exceptional or world-class skill.
“Many people may wonder how an accounting professor becomes so good at Scrabble, or they may think ‘Oh, you must be so good at English,’ but that’s not true” he said. What people don’t realize is that all good Scrabble players share the same characteristics –– they are math and music people.”
According to Swift, a good Scrabble player doesn’t need to know the definitions of words, just the skill of recognizing words when they see them. He compared it to solving math formulas or even counting cards.
“The biggest thing is being able to memorize large, detailed lists of information,” he said. “Scrabble is a numbers game that taps into your math brain.”
On July 23-27, Swift competed with the best of the at the annual North American Scrabble Championship in Baltimore, Maryland. After a five-day tournament, 31 total games at seven rounds a day, and more than 100,000 words later, Swift won second place ranking him as the No. 2-rated Scrabble player in the nation.
“You know, I was an intermediate player in Scrabble right out of the gate when I won my first tournament years ago. Once I became an expert, I knew that winning the championship was on my bucket list because I just wanted to be the best,” he said. “
Although the grandmaster didn’t master the No. 1 item on his bucket list, he said he’s thankful that the chase is still on.
“If I won, then that means that it’s off the bucket list and, to be honest, I wouldn’t know what to do,” he said. “I won $4,000 from the championship, but at this point, it’s not about the money. I’m chasing gold.”
While he doesn’t have plans to enter any Scrabble competitions any time soon, the accounting professor said he’ll be keeping busy with another competitive hobby.
Swift also is a nationally ranked competitive card player with Magic: The Gathering.
“I was working in the computer science lab at University of Houston while earning my master’s degree, and some guys were there playing cards on a table next to me,” he said. “I was bored and I said, ‘Hey, what's that?’ and I just never looked back.”
Admittedly, Swift said his skill-level is not the same in Magic: The Gathering as in Scrabble, but he’d like to keep it that way.

“Magic is my break away from Scrabble. I am an expert in the game, but certainly not grandmaster level and I don’t have to study hours at a time; I can be as competitive as I want,” he said.
The accounting professor may never shake his competitive spirit. His second bucket list item? To win the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour.

“You know, for me the highest high of competition is just being there and trying to outwit someone that knows everything and has mastered a game,” he said. “It’s trying to squeeze out incremental advantage against someone that is playing perfect or near perfect. I find it fascinating and the chase is always on.”