Playing Through

If words were fastballs, Austin Chronicle spelling bee champ Geoff Thevenot was Hank Aaron

Playing Through
Courtesy of Matthew Wedgwood

All play is pointless. It makes nothing happen, W.H. Auden said. It is "quite useless," Oscar Wilde said. Whether you're talking about the massive sculptures of Richard Serra or the majestic golf shots of Tiger Woods, the defining virtue of play is its purposelessness, its ultimate irrationality.

A rational individual wouldn't dedicate his life to moving little figurines around a tabletop, but a grandmaster chess champion does. A sensible gal wouldn't contort her body into wildly improbable positions, but ballerinas do.

I had to remind myself of this while watching Geoff Thevenot dispose of some shit. Actually, Thevenot just had to correctly spell a word that meant shit, or excrement. The word is "ordure." In print, it doesn't seem a particularly hard word to spell. The pronunciation – awr-jer – is what throws you. But not Thevenot. While other contestants in The Austin Chronicle Adult Spelling Bee last week at Threadgill's hemmed, hawed, asked for definitions and derivations, and twisted their faces in agonies of concentration, Thevenot coolly swatted one word after another out of the park. If words were fastballs, Thevenot was Hank Aaron.

Like most people, though, I have always held hitting baseballs and golf balls in higher regard than spelling weird words. I'm not sure why. If knowing obscure words like "banausic" and "botryoidal" is no less inconsequential than hitting a golf ball, Thevenot's talent is no less remarkable than Tiger Woods'.

Which is not to say Thevenot is particularly impressed with his peculiar facility.

"I don't come into these things sticking my chest out," he says. "What I have is an ability to encode trivia and minute rules, to systematize details. But it's no big deal. I know people a lot smarter than me who can't spell for shit. I just like the way words are constructed, the flavor of words. There's an aesthetic quality to it. But sequencing English letters is only one kind of intelligence."

Well, sure – and hitting golf balls is only one kind of athleticism. Writing symphonies is only one way of making noise. Writing a sestina is only one way of arranging words. It's in the nature of every play form to isolate and elevate in importance a teeny-tiny skill set. So while Thevenot – one of the best Scrabble players in the world; runner-up of the 2006 United States Open, he'll be competing in the Thailand International Cup next month – adamantly makes no great claims for himself, I will.

That he can spell doesn't in itself impress me. That he is willing to devote countless hours to mastering the lexicon, even if it serves no purpose and brings him no wealth or fame, does.

The Threadgill's competition started with nearly 200 entrants. Each round cut the field roughly in half, until finally Thevenot was in a showdown with Dave Riddle, a lawyer from Pacific Grove, Calif. The word that tripped up Riddle was "onomatopoeically." In case you're wondering, that's spelled, "o-n-o-m-a-t-o-p-o-e-i-c-a-l-l-y."

How do I know this? Because Geoff Thevenot said so.

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W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde, Richard Serra, Dave Riddle, The Austin Chronicle Adult Spelling Bee, Geoff Thevenot

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