Along with watching cat videos and obsessively reading blogs, one of the many ways the American workforce procrastinates throughout the day is by playing Scrabble on Facebook. If you check in on your active games a few times every day, you might consider yourself a devoted player. But nobody is more devoted than Steven Turnbull, a friendly, soft-spoken Saskatchewanian who has won more games of Scrabble than anyone else in North America (Facebook users in North America play a different version of Scrabble than users in the rest of the world, because Hasbro and Mattel split the global rights to the game). He has won 11,524 games of Scrabble over the course of about three years, and is currently involved in 92 active games.
“When you first contacted me I sat down and I thought, Geez, I do play a lot of scrabble,” he tells us, as if the possibility hadn’t occurred to him previously. It’s not that he’s the absolute best player — by his own admission, plenty of people have a better ranking than he does — but he’s good enough, and plays frequently enough, to place him atop of the “most wins” list.
Turnbull serves as both the principal of a K through 12 school in the tiny village of Paradise Hill and the mayor of his small town of Lashburn, but both his co-workers and his constituents will appreciate that he doesn’t actually play Scrabble during work. He says he finds the time in the mornings, at lunch, in the evenings, and on weekends. When he has a spare moment at home, he’ll check in on his games, and since he doesn’t “sit there and contemplate every move,” his games go quickly. He insists he actually does do other things besides play Scrabble, despite our suspicions.
“It’s not that I sit in front of the computer all day and play Scrabble,” he tells us. “I still teach and run my school and attend all the meetings I need to attend and look after my kids and go to events,” he says. “I haven’t noticed it taking over my world.”
We asked him if he’s a minor celebrity of sorts, if other people know about his Scrabble prowess. “Some do,” he says. “I guess I don’t go around telling people. I guess that’s just me. There are a few people that know. My family certainly knows, close friends, stuff like that.”
He may not broadcast his status as the reigning Scrabble wins leader, but he does seem to relish it. At first he says it would be “fine” if Jonathan Cruz — at 11,104 wins, his second-closest competitor — passes him in the standings. But after reflection, he decides, “I guess I do want to stay on top, because if I’m on holidays or if my Internet goes down, I am worried about, ‘Is someone going to beat me?’” He says that if he’s staying over someone else’s house for the night, he’ll try to sneak off and attend to his games.
By the end of our conversation, Turnball seems conflicted about Scrabble’s hold on him. “It really isn’t that much, over three years,” he says of winning an average of about eleven games a day. “It looks like a big total.” Then he reconsiders. “I guess, you know, when it comes down to it, maybe I am a little bit, um … obsessed.”