North American high school Scrabble champ spells out lofty goals
It’s hard for Toronto high school student Ruth Li to find a competitive game of Scrabble. At 17 years old, she’s outpaced any friends and family who dare take her on.
“I’ve played a couple of games with people in my life,” she says. “Obviously did not go too well for them. I play online so I can meet people who have a similar ability level to me.”
Even that talent pool is fairly shallow, as Li has recently been crowned the high school division champion at the North American Scrabble World Championships. She went 9-0 on her way to winning the competition in Washington, D.C., taking home $1,000 in prize money.
In the final, she started out with “fices,” which means belligerent mongrel dog. She also put down tiles to spell out a pair of currencies, “guineas” and “dinar.” They’re words she doesn’t use in everyday conversation but has run into in past games. She has a treasure trove of words in her memory to call upon — even if she doesn’t know what they mean.
“In one of the first moves of my finals game, I played fogey,” she says. “I don’t even know what that one means, but it’s kind of a strange-looking word.”
“Fogey” is a term used to describe older adults.
Li began playing the game when a classmate in Grade 6 was holding auditions for someone to partner with in the school Scrabble club.
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“I played the first game with her and we it just clicked,” she says. “There was really good chemistry with us as a team, and she basically stopped the auditions there and we played as partners for a couple of years.”
Li would go on to win the Toronto District School Board championship twice before entering to compete in the North American Championships. It was only after she won that she learned she was the first woman to win the high school division.
“I think it’s more so that a lot of girls are not necessarily encouraged to be competitive, even if nowadays women and men are educated together,” she says. “And women aren’t necessarily pushed to be competitive in academics, but also in like extracurricular activities.”
Developing a competitive edge hasn’t been a problem for Li, who has a 98+ average in high school with hopes of taking biomedical engineering in university at either McMaster or Waterloo.
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Winning the championship will look good as an extracurricular on her applications, as will all the extra time she puts into mentoring younger students on her high school robotics team. She also volunteers at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital (the largest in Canada) where she teaches robotics to youth with disabilities.
“I think I’ve been so privileged to have this high school robotics team that has helped me learn so much about engineering and discover my passion for it that I just really want to spread that to my community and to other children.”
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