Sitting across the table from the number-one-ranked Scrabble player in the world, you expect big things.
Er, make that, grandiose loquaciousness.
Instead, 22-year-old Conrad Bassett-Bouchard, a former Moragan who has double-bounced, starting his life in Piedmont and now housesitting amid what he calls "Piedmont's peaceful and prosperous suburbanity" -- sticks to the 3's and 4's.
"It's a math game, not a word game," he says, limiting his vocabulary to a low, 3-to-4-letter-word format.
But don't let the language fool you: Bassett-Bouchard, better known as "Dacron," the scrambled-letters nickname he uses in competition, hides an expansive verbiage, an intense interest in culture and a passion for cooking and enjoying the world's cuisine as he travels to tournaments.
He even has a burger blog.
"One of the reasons I was overweight as a kid came from that Nations over there," he says, pointing accusingly, but fondly, at the nearby establishment.
A Portland, Ore.-style cart that served burgers in Southeast Asia provides his favorite recent burger memory.
"It was cool to see random burger dudes in Laos. The world is big and also kind of small, isn't it?" he says.
As he shares his story of attending high school in Moraga's sheltered environment and struggling to fit in, it's apparent that Bassett—Bouchard's ticket to self-assurance was Scrabble.
"Everything was so OK; there were never any issues.
Playing Scrabble online released his anxiety, and when he eventually started competing at clubs in Oakland and joined a weekend tournament in Vegas, he won $825 to put in his 15-year-old pocket.
"I love the competitive scene," he says, "but I don't like the sterile, quiet ballroom." If he could change one rule about the game, invented in 1938 by Alfred Mosher Butts and patented by Hasbro in the United States and Canada, it would be the sound.
"I know watching TV is stupid to do while you are studying, but I watch food shows while I practice Scrabble" he admits.
At the 2012 Nationals, Bassett-Bouchard faced Nigel Richards, the U.S. Champion in the American Dictionary rankings (Bassett-Bouchard is No. 1 in the Collins Dictionary rankings). But overall he finished ninth ("I was quite sick and that was very unfortunate," Bassett-Bouchard e-mailed from Orlando).
He said the quiet atmosphere is "nuts."
"In Thailand, it was so much fun! There was a gigantic robot, and it was in a mall with music playing. You should be able to play mind games: get in your opponent's head, talk smack, mess with them!" he argues loudly, as if to convince anyone within earshot.
Fortunately, his deep-rooted enthusiasm for the game, for making the best play with a given set of seven tiles in the 25 minutes allotted to each player, supersedes.
"It's all probability and luck," he begins, pulling out tiles to spell "pix," then "lay" and demonstrating how parallel -- instead of cross-play -- adds up to more points.
"Every play you make, you're balancing five or six factors. What does this do to my board? What does this mean about the tiles in my bag?" he explains.
Bassett-Bouchard dismisses his ranking achieved with skill from following author Malcolm Gladwell's classic "10,000-Hour Rule" -- which claims the key to success in anything is largely from practicing it for about 10,000 hours -- as "just stats" and far from his focus.
"I play for the people -- and because it has changed my life in so many ways," he says.
For now, he's loving the travel opportunities, saying, "Scrabble is something I can do all over the world; it's a good excuse to go," and working for his father's relocation company to supplement the $5,000 he earned last year from Scrabble.
Now that the Orlando tournament, with its $10,000 prize, is over, Bassett-Bouchard is contemplative.
"I"m in that quarter-life crisis," he quips, "where the world is more accessible and there's more freedom but you struggle with where you want to be."