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The Meeple Guild: Board gaming to benefit literacy

It makes a humble guilder smile at the effort, and also wonder could it be something implemented locally in years to come?
John Chew Chief Executive Officer with the North American Scrabble Players Association and a Director at Toronto Scrabble Club said raising dollars for literacy was a good fit for group.

YORKTON - Board gaming is naturally a passion for those few in our little ‘Guild’, but for the most part it is a passion we share at our own game table, with limited interactions beyond the group.

We are trying to change that a little by hosting game nights at the Yorkton Public Library, and even a few trips to do the same in Canora, in part to share the joys of gaming and in part because we hope to be good community people too.

So, it’s always interesting when we see what other games groups are doing.

As a writer myself one which really caught my eye was the recent Scrabble For Literacy effort.

As it happens, I am friends, thanks to social media, with John Chew Chief Executive Officer with the North American Scrabble Players Association and a Director at Toronto Scrabble Club.

So with the help of email, the Guild sought to learn more about Scrabble For Literacy.

The Scrabble For Literacy event started under the name Scrabble Corporate Challenge in 2005, explained Chew.

“I believe it came about as a result of Frontier College -- as United for Literacy was known then -- board members wanting to build on grassroots Scrabble-themed fundraising that the charity had already been doing, by holding an event that would bring together deep-pocketed Bay St. firms in Toronto for a night of friendly Scrabble competition in a good cause.”

Chew said the program makes some obvious sense.

“It does seem a natural fit for a game based on words to do some good for literacy,” offered Chew.

“I think that when the theme of a fundraiser is related to its cause, that brings an extra synergy that makes the event more fun for everyone involved.

“Many people who are involved in literacy issues are avid Scrabble players: it's a good, non-threatening way to teach and learn how to spell. In this age where more and more aspects of our lives are being digitally gamified by tech companies, it's also fun to get back to basics to spend a night playing a board game with real tiles on a real board.”

Chew said it seems the program works for all involved.

“People who come to the event to support the cause not only end up with a warm feeling in their heart from supporting a cause, but a sense of community with the other players with whom they shared the evening,” he said.

But what drew Chew personally to participate?

“Frontier College initially ran the event with their own volunteer staff. In 2007, they had the idea that they could raise additional funds by having expert players offer paid advice during games, reached out to me in my capacity as director of the Toronto Scrabble Club, and I was happy to bring some friends along to help out,” he explained.

“After that event, I had a conversation with the organizer, pointing out ways in which it could be streamlined to make for a better experience for the attendees, based on what I knew of running competitive Scrabble tournaments, and I took over as statistician in 2008.”

It's also something of the maturation of Chew as an individual and as a Scrabble player.

“When I first started playing competitive Scrabble in 1993, all I was interested in was becoming the best player that I could be,” he said.

“I noticed though that my predecessor as director -- one of the founders of competitive Scrabble, an actuary named Mike Wise -- spent a lot of time lending his skills to charities; and when I took over in 1998, I came to understand how much more satisfying it was to put board-gaming skills to use in making the world a better place.

“Since then, I've rarely said no to requests for charitable Scrabble help; my main other causes are Performing Arts Lodge -- affordable housing for people retired from the Canadian entertainment industry, School Scrabble, and to some extent the time I spend running the North American Scrabble Players Association.”

So how does the event work to raise funds? 

“The event has evolved a lot over the years, so I'll just describe what we did this year,” said Chew. “The competition took place in three stages: players could compete playing online using the Scrabble GO app to win a trip to the in-person finals in Toronto; then players competed in an in-person event in Toronto to qualify the other finalist; then finally the two finalists played onstage streamed to Twitch, each supported by a celebrity (Bea Santos and August Winter) and a Scrabble expert, with me providing commentary.

“At each point, players had opportunities to donate to the cause by buying tickets to events, making additional donations, buying corporate sponsorships, paying in-person for expert advice, a 50-50 draw, a silent auction, etc.

“Last I checked, the event had raised in the low six figures, which will do much to help the charity with their work.”

The recent event was also back to face-to-face.

“We missed playing in person in 2021 and 2022, but it felt right to be back in person this year,” said Chew. “I've found some other things have been weird or tense in person, but a structured event like a Scrabble fundraiser is a very easy way to get back into being social. You can immerse yourself in your game, or in conversation with your fellow players, or you can just sit back and enjoy the food, drink and live music. 

“From a fundraising perspective, I think it's also more productive to offer a live experience for donors, as it gives them more vivid memories of a night well spent in exchange for their contribution.”

The program is held in a number of communities.

“There are other similar events elsewhere in Canada, but I think this is the first one to go back to in-person competition,” said Chew.” It ran reasonably smoothly. I find that since the pandemic, you have to allow for more people than before to make last-minute changes to their plans, and to be ready for anything to happen. And if anything does go wrong, people are just happy enough to be out doing something that they're more tolerant and patient than they used to be.”

It makes a humble guilder smile at the effort, and also wonder could it be something implemented locally in years to come?