MOUNT PLEASANT -- One of the best tiles is "H." You wouldn't know that. Most SCRABBLE players don't even realize it. Nathan James does. He has to.

On Saturday, he flies to Dallas to take on 87 other veteran players for a shot at a $3,000 National SCRABBLE Championship prize. Don't look so surprised. The Division 1 players are plunking down tiles for a $10,000 prize. SCRABBLE, the board game where competitors lay out tiles with letters on them to make words building on other word tiles, isn't just for kids.

James, 21, is ranked 297th in the United States, with a rating of 1,626. That's Division 2. Ten years ago, it would have made him an expert. Now, some people consider a 1,800 rating the expert level. The highest-ranked player in the National SCRABBLE Championship next week has a 2,097 rating.

"It takes the strategy and intellect of chess but has the unpredictability of sports," James said. "It's sometimes hard to explain. It's sort of strange how people will understand if you say you spend hours per day playing chess. But if you say you spend hours playing SCRABBLE, they look at you funny."

OK, he knows you're looking at him funny.

"Sometimes it does feel like I'm trying to convince people that we didn't land on the moon," he said.

Shaking your head, huh? Did you know that "qi" is an accepted SCRABBLE word, from the Chinese for energy flow? Could you lay out "hegira," from the Arabic meaning to flee from danger? Don't bother reaching for the dictionary.

"That's how people used to do it in the Dark Ages," James said. Most players now pore over the SCRABBLE Wordbook, a compendium that sorts words into page-long lists based on how long they are and how easily the letters form anagrams, words created by rearranging letters of a word. Then there are alphagrams, anagrams laid out in alphabetic sequence.

But the cutting edge is a computer program that James, among others, has downloaded. The software allows you to sort letters based on playability rather than probability. That means by how often they actually are played rather than the likelihood they can be used.

Dizzy? James has been studying these lists and plays practice games some six or seven hours per day, often online against the better players in the world, to "bust it" for the prize money.

"If I were to do it 10 hours per day my brain would just die," he said.

Who is this guy?

A brainiac. James started reading at 19 months old and keeps bookmarks in a dozen or so tomes at a time.

"My little word freak," sighs mom, Kathie James, with an indulgent smile. "Nathan reads the classics for fun." He drives down the street making anagrams out of road signs. He's one of only three players in South Carolina to qualify and then register for the championship.

Oh, and "H." The letter is one of the few scoring letters in the game that easily creates handy two-letter words and improves the chances of laying down a slate-clearing, seven-tile Bingo, worth an extra 50 points. "H" is worth four points. Ask Nathan James.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or