You should have seen the Scrabble board tonight. It was violence, pure violence. Sheer lexical brutality. Above this paragraph could be a photo to illustrate my glorious victory – either a snapshot of tonight’s board or something from Flickr maybe, with a classic edition of the board in all its distinctive colours. But I refuse to kowtow to your relentless lust for the visual. You’ll have to content yourself with imagining it.
I’m by no means a veteran Scrabble player. I just got caught up in the whole Scrabble thing – as an indirect result of the buzz around the Facebook app I guess. (On that note, the URL of this blog post is a shout-out to those heady days of 2008.) I don’t think I ever played the Facebook app. It holds no interest for me. Call it a personal foible but for me Scrabble is an unmediated pursuit, very much like poker. It’s physical, it’s haptic. Scrabble involves tiles, racks, the board, a pen and paper. The match is completed in one sitting. Online play would be a completely different game. It would be a sprawling mess, allowing for ridiculous amounts of cheating. Also, it might be there all the time, distracting me from more important things I’m aiming to do, like work. (Or writing this, natch.)
So I’ve been playing the real Scrabble for a while. It’s reasonable to say I’ve been getting gradually better through practice. Most of what I’ve picked up is from playing and losing and learning. I know what to do with an “S” and I’m not about to leave some megapoints open just on a whim. “ZA” is allowed and is short for pizza. Yeah, I know! But it is. You can’t quibble with SOWPODS, the official dictionary. You’re not allowed to play “ZEN” for some reason. On a related theme perhaps, “QI” is allowed and is another way of spelling “chi”, the Chinese concept of a vital life energy.
The margin of 16 points was clear enough tonight. In any field of combat this would be a cause for celebration and reams of bunting. What’s more, I felt for the first time that I was making some kind of breakthrough – not only with Scrabble, but with finding any kind of game to call my own. Quizzes I can do, but otherwise in my life until now I could never claim any notable sporting ability. It’s just not my thing.
In physical sports, for instance, there’s a pattern. Generally I achieve mediocrity and then enter a negative spiral and very quickly settle into a relaxed state of very little ability or, for that matter, concern. I’m happy this way.
Imagine being some kind of sporting jock who took it really seriously! That’s not my style, dude. Tennis would be the worst. Charging up and down, earnestly trying to strike a ball like some pathetic trained animal. Then working up a red-faced fit of pique at the umpire’s decision. What folly. I tried playing tennis once, then immediately felt constrained and wanted to exit the game as soon as possible.
Most of the football matches I played were in school. I wouldn’t have minded being better at football. And I felt bad for the guy who got picked last for the team every time. I would be around fourth or fifth from last. So not really exceptional in my lack of sporting talent either.
Fact remains, if I have a “competitive streak” it has rarely ever surfaced in these kinds of pursuits.
And we’re back at the board of brutality. Recently every Scrabble match I have played has offered a real opportunity of victory. Therefore the victory is the focus and it must not be compromised. In Scrabble, as in life, I’m the kind of guy who cannot abide cheating. In my presence there will be no illegal words, prior dictionary research nor any deviation from the proper rules whatsoever. Last summer I ended up having a debate with somebody who was trying to play “IQ”. (As if that could ever be considered a word!) OK, it wasn’t a debate, it was more like an argument. Call it the unfamiliar feeling of actually being competitive and caring about winning a zero-sum game. I didn’t like that feeling.
Tonight I had a kind of flash-forward, which is like your flashback as a standard movie device except into the future. If I were to work at this Scrabble brilliance then I would have to become the best in the Riverside district of Cardiff. And then zoom out from there. Talent, fame, wealth and comprehensive knowledge of peculiar words awaited. Mostly the latter.
The vision became one of supreme Scrabble ability but I could already clearly see where it was leading. The pinnacle of vocabular skill promised so much. But were I to conquer it, I would feel empty inside. True, I’d emerged victorious in my future imagining: a real Scrabble overlord. Nevertheless, I felt my qi ebbing away.
In order to progress to this final stage and excel at Scrabble, I would have to proceed to the next stage. The next stage is to play more and better people. The training pathways are pretty much set and gradual improvement is almost inevitable, if you have a knack for it. You get some practice with superior players and spend time equipping yourself with heavier and more effective precision armoury, word patterns and the like. The shortest words are a good place to start.
Lists of the two and three-letter words are easy to find. Now and again I’ve tried. But every time I glance at such a list, I immediately question myself. What am I doing? What has my life become? The exercise seems so futile and I cast aside the papers in disgust. (More often than that I close the web browser window in disgust, but that would be to diminish the dramatic effect of this story.)
I know a guy who hates Scrabble. Let’s call him Matthew, because that is his name. He’s an intelligent guy and you could imagine him being quite good. But Matthew hates Scrabble, his body rejects it, because the words don’t mean anything. They’re just collections of letters that correspond to valid English words. It’s therefore a pointless pursuit in his mind. I don’t hold that point of view but I’m beginning to understand it. Especially when considering all this properly. What kind of person learns those words and pursues that kind of excellence? Sure, you could spend extra time learning the actual meanings of the words, but that’s peripheral to the goal of Scrabble prowess. The meaning is not intrinsic to the game. Did you know that there are, say, Asian people who can play the English version of Scrabble to international standard but who cannot understand English with any degree of fluency? I don’t know if that’s true or not but someone told me once and it could be true.
The learning of words is an arms race in which there can only be one winner. That winner could be me. It could! But it could just as easily be someone else. In order for it to be me, I’d have to really desire it and put time and energy into it. In that activity there is no incentive for me. I have this in its right context now. In any given Scrabble match I certainly wouldn’t mind beating you. But I no longer feel the need to beat you. And I don’t care if you beat me.
Incidentally, I also own a brand new Scrabble Yn Gymraeg set. It’s the official Welsh version with a different set of letters. As far as my Scrabble Yn Gymraeg is concerned, I am hopelessly impaired and stand a very good chance of losing utterly. And that retains a lot of appeal.