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Tri-City students prepare for 2nd national championship

You might think you're a good Scrabble player.

But then you probably haven't played Jacob Sivonen, 13, of Pasco, or Will Stone, 11, of Richland.

In January they won the Northwest School Scrabble Championship in Newberg, Ore. Next they will compete -- for the second year in a row -- at the National School Scrabble Championship in Orlando, Fla.

For the next two months, each will be spending hours a week preparing.

"You can't be a good Scrabble player if you don't spend time," Will said. "You have to study. You have to play."

They've got the strategy of the game down, said Will's mother, Jessica Stone, who paired the two when she was teaching a Scrabble class for a home-schooling cooperative. In the school competitions, open to fifth- to eighth-graders, students play as two-person teams.

Will is a nonstop talker, who has a T-shirt signed by the most famous people he has met in the Scrabble world. Jacob is quieter and tall, an imposing presence at a student Scrabble table. As much as he enjoys Scrabble, he likes basketball better than anything that requires sitting still, Jacob said.

Both have a competitive drive.

This is not your casual family game. Their goal is to average 400 points a game, and they won each game in the regional tournament by an average of almost 180 points.

"Learn your two-letter words," Will advised. And "never play one word when you can play two."

Scrabble words played parallel and adjacent to each other can rack up big points.

Jacob, son of Jeff and Rebekah Sivonen, recommended playing defensively, leaving few good openings for your opponent to play high-scoring words.

With the strategy down, "now it's just learning more words," Jessica Stone said.

Jacob is memorizing the three-letter words accepted in Scrabble play -- all 1,004 of them.

Will is learning Scrabble's bingo stems. They are six letter words made up of common letters that have the potential to earn a bingo -- a 50-point bonus for playing seven letters at once -- if the player has the right tile to go with them.

For instance, retina with a "t" makes nitrate and with an "e" makes trainee.

The more difficult the word, the better, the boys said. For example, they said, why play stonier when you could play oestrin and fool the other team into making a loosing challenge?

The worst hands to draw are all vowels or consonants, they said.

But if they do, they have options. Such as playing "crwth," a stringed instrument.

Both come from families where Scrabble is a tradition.

Jacob caught the Scrabble bug from his dad, who taught him to play when he was 6.

Now Jacob plays online games with people around the world, saying he learns a new word every time he plays.

Not only does Will's mom teach Scrabble skills, including at Kennewick Community Education, but his dad, John Stone, has just started this semester's Scrabble class at Three Rivers HomeLink, a Richland School District program for home-schooled students. And sometimes when Will calls his grandparents, they tell him they are in the middle of a game and will talk to him later.

For the national tournament, the two boys will play as Three Rivers CHECK Mates, with Jacob representing CHECK, a home-schooling cooperative, and Will representing Three Rivers HomeLink.

Last year they came in 21st out of 97 teams, and this year they have got another 12 months of practice and learning new words to boost their skills.

"I kind of hope we can be at least top 10," Will said. "Jacob thinks we can win it."

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