Scrabble, Anonymous


scrabble

Images courtesy of Brad Phillips.

This morning, before breakfast, I played nineteen games of Scrabble on my phone. I won thirteen. It took less than an hour. Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve played Scrabble every day, predominantly on ISC.RO, a website hosted in Romania that allows for games that are no longer than three minutes. On my phone, I use the Scrabble app and play a bot set to “expert. I had meant to play only two or three games today, but as has been happening since 1999, I found that impossible.

These facts embarrass me, and I’m concerned I might appear to be bragging, announcing that I can finish a Scrabble game against a highly skilled bot in less time than it takes to brush one’s teeth. I’m not bragging. I’m confessing to being addicted to an ostensible word game that occupies more space in my brain than I’d prefer. Addicts are necessarily experts when it comes to the things that enslave them. No sommelier or “mixologist” can testify to any aspect of an alcoholic beverage with more expertise than a run-of-the-mill drunk playing keno in a dive bar.

Run-of-the-mill drunk in a dive bar. I was one once. I’d wake up determined to have just two or three drinks, then have many, many more than two or three. As with playing Scrabble, doing otherwise felt impossible. In Alcoholics Anonymous, we’re told that it’s common to substitute one addiction for another. Surely, I tell myself, this new unmanageability is preferable to the old one. It’s possible I’m right. It’s also possible I’m wrong.

***

Scrabble is a family favorite game played on a board composed of two hundred and twenty-five squares. There are one hundred tiles, each printed with a letter (save the two blanks) that is assigned a numerical value. The most common letters (A, E, R) are worth one point. The most uncommon (Q, Z) are worth ten. Players start—and until the end remain—with seven letters that they use to create words by building on previously played words, hoping to place one or more of their tiles on any of the colored squares, thereby multiplying their score.

This morning—before those nineteen games, the instant I woke up—I realized that the letters in CAUTIONED can be rearranged to spell EDUCATION. This seemed vastly better than waking up with no memory of the previous night, worried about what I may have done or said. Nonetheless, the thinking is obsessive and constant. The unwilling, unconscious anagramming of words is the primary side effect of a life devoted to Scrabble. This is ultimately what the game is about: memorizing words with no concern for their meaning.

If you play Scrabble seriously, no question from an opponent is more tedious than “What does that word mean?” Despite being a game centered on words, Scrabble isn’t about words; it’s about strategy, probability, and memorization. Misunderstanding this fact about the game leads people to unpleasant realizations.

For example, in August 2023, Isaac Aronow wrote about Scrabble for the New York Times. He’d seen a nine-minute video posted by The New Yorker titled “Professional Scrabble Players Replay Their Greatest Moves” and, shocked that there were professional Scrabble players, became determined to get good at the game. Aronow stated that because of his job as a writer and an editor, words were “important” to him, and he believed this might be helpful in Scrabble. He then outlined the humiliation he experienced playing online and admitted to having been full of hubris. Aronow was not good and didn’t improve.

I am also a writer and occasionally an editor. I know that this has no effect on my Scrabble game. If anything, the inverse is true: having learned the word bezique from playing Scrabble, I once used it in a short story about a private detective working on a case in Lisbon.

When playing Scrabble, language explodes then settles quietly on your rack, having been decommissioned. Each letter is a weapon only in the service of point accumulation and can no longer convey meaning by joining with its fellow letters. A word on a Scrabble board is a mathematical fact, not a unit of expression.

Last Thursday I visited the New York Scrabble Club, affiliated with the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA), of which I am a member. It was my first visit. I joined the club in May 2023. For eleven months, I planned to go, then did not go. Unlike Isaac Aronow, I was not full of hubris. I was terrified.

Life online is mostly devoid of the fear that can permeate life lived offline. Thus trolls, and QAnon. On ISC.RO I’ve played famed figures in the Scrabble world without having to meet their gaze. Online I’ve often felt confident, even arrogant, about my ability to play high-scoring words in very little time. Among the members of the New York Scrabble Club, everyone can do what I do, and most, I imagined, could do much better than me. Realizing that I’d be shaking hands with them, saying “good luck” and “good game,” made me feel as vulnerable as I felt the first time I walked into a church basement for an AA meeting. But, I realized, there was something else that made me nervous.

I felt like I was going to do something wrong, something addicty, something I hadn’t done in a very long time.

***

The eleventh tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous states, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”

Since this is the literal press, I apologize to friends for breaking with tradition.

The tradition is meant to safeguard the program, not the individual. An alcoholic is free to tell people they have a drinking problem. What they’re not supposed to do is tell those people that AA relieved them of their problem, because if they relapse, someone enslaved to alcohol but curious about the program may let that be the reason they don’t attempt it themselves.

I had meant for this to be an account of my experience meeting and playing against Scrabble players I’ve admired for decades. Using the “observe” function on ISC.RO, I have watched some of these players play in real time. Along with a dozen other people seeking to improve their skills, I have looked on as the world’s highest-ranked players lay down bingo (a word using all seven letters) after bingo, marveling at their ability to anagram the obscurest of words from vowel-heavy racks. I’ve spent untold hours analyzing downloaded boards played by world champions, and it’s worked: I’m a much better Scrabble player because of it, to the extent that I can no longer play against people who aren’t as obsessed with the game as I am.

But despite having played Scrabble for exactly half my life, despite having a fairly admirable win-to-loss ratio and having had friends and family tell me I’m good, I felt certain that my first experience at the New York Scrabble Club would be an ignominious one, soundtracked with mocking laughter from the regulars, whom I was both excited and scared to meet. As is almost always the case when I imagine the future, what happened was the opposite of what I’d expected. And because the environment felt something like sacred, because I dread the idea of anyone from last Thursday reading this and feeling exposed or viewing me as a tourist and an interloper, I’m employing a modified version of Alcoholics Anonymous’s eleventh tradition. The only name named is my own.

***

People attempting to recover from unhealthy obsessions unanimously report a tendency to overthink to the point of debility. Riding the subway uptown to the Scrabble club, I considered the ways I’d replaced one addiction with another.

I compared (played off the C, a bingo with OMPARED) and contrasted (played off CON, a bingo with TRASTED).

When addicted (played off the I, a bingo with ADDCTED) to a substance, thoughts of the substance become the background and foreground of your mindscape. As was the case with alcohol, my first and last thoughts of the day are usually Scrabble related (RELATED anagrams: ALTERED, REDEALT, ALERTED, TREADLE). These thoughts do not feel self-generated. Instead (DETAINS, STAINED, SAINTED …) I feel like I’m being harassed by my mind, forced to think about something I’d rather not be thinking about.

Addiction interrupts productivity. An alcoholic in the office takes long lunch breaks. Editing this essay today, on six different occasions I’ve stopped to open ISC.RO. Each time, I’ve played more games than I’d intended. As a result, my editor is still waiting.

By the time I exited the subway, I’d disabused myself of the notion that I am a “normal” Scrabble player. What this says about my status as someone in recovery from addiction, I don’t know.

***

That Thursday night, J—— S——, chairman of the New York Scrabble Club (also the 1997 World, 2002 National, and 2018 North American champion) gave me a copy of the helpful New Player Information handout he’d created. My heart was still racing from having met someone whose games I’d voyeuristically observed countless times when I read: “Don’t play scared. Don’t worry how good your opponent is …”

People like me must show up from time to time, sweating. I scanned the room. At fifty, I was close to being the youngest person in attendance, a drastic change from my usual social life, which mostly, sometimes drearily, involves art openings. There was an assortment of cookies on a table, two canisters of coffee, and maybe twenty-five people in attendance. I would play four games that night, each with a twenty-two-minute clock, and I was supposed to be matched against people of my skill level. But how would they know my skill level? I considered leaving before things began.

As I waited for the matchups for the first game to be announced, I looked at the competition. I couldn’t guess what these people did for a living. They couldn’t guess what I did, and most beautifully, they wouldn’t care. The same phenomenon exists in twelve-step meetings. You hear the same people share about their lives week after week and don’t know if they’re cardiac surgeons, state senators, or baristas. A common obsession is a powerful unifier, one that renders all other biographical information meaningless.

I took another look at the handout I’d been given. It advised me that the best letters to have on my rack were those in the word CANISTER. I’d learned something new without having yet taken off my jacket. The C, I’d always thought, apparently mistakenly, was a letter to avoid. With the other letters in CANISTER, I knew that I could play the following bingos:

RETAINS
STAINER
ANESTRI
STEARIN
ANTSIER
NASTIER
RETINAS
RETSINA
RATINES

A first for me was that this time everyone else in the room also knew about these words. These bingos were common, even pedestrian. Now aware that J—— S—— praised the C, I instantly saw three new bingos I wouldn’t ordinarily have noticed:

CREATINS
SCANTIER
CARNITES

I was a newcomer. A rookie. Unaware of the value of the letter C. My heart sunk.

Then I heard my name and instantly felt nauseous.

I swallowed hard and looked at my opponent, who smiled at me. There were maybe a dozen tables in the club, each with a plastic-coated, helpfully rotating Scrabble board, a bag of letters, and a chess clock. Growing up, we kept our Scrabble letters in a purple, faux-velvet Crown Royal bag. I saw three Crown Royal bags that night and felt that they knew me. They were me. Stalling for time, I got a coffee from the snack table and filled a paper bowl with Smarties and pretzels. Outside it was 2024, but inside it could easily still have been 1987, even 1975.

I approached my table.

A—— was markedly friendly and made banter, which I later learned is strongly discouraged. There should be, the New Player handout said, zero conversation unrelated to word challenges and scorekeeping during games. I suspected I’d been matched against A—— because I was new, because I was scared, and because I didn’t know the etiquette. A—— made me feel welcome. After he played ZEBU—and while he explained to me the proper technique for exchanging letters—I played ZINGIEST (played off the Z, a bingo with INGIEST). With twelve and a half minutes left on my clock, I was shocked to find I’d won my first game, 353–337. A—— congratulated me, showed me where the pencil sharpener was, and went to refill his coffee.

I went to the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face, then heard the matchups for the second game announced. Though I lost my second game (366–409)—to J——, a guy in his sixties with a welcoming, warm expression—experiencing defeat and having it be free of laughter or taunting from observers got me to relax. J—— had commented that I played fast and asked which tournaments I’d been in. I told him none, that this was my first time playing anyone I wasn’t in love with or related to. I looked for a sign that he was impressed but didn’t find one.

My next opponent, L——, told me, “This city isn’t what it used to be.” I agreed, despite not having lived in New York when it was what it no longer is. I won 368–312 and in my final game beat N——, 358–309.

I suddenly felt exhausted. I’d been far more anxious than I had realized and was suffering the aftermath of a flood of stress hormones. I looked around. People were engrossed in their fourth and final games, and those who’d finished theirs were watching. Two elderly men were animatedly consulting a dog-eared copy of a NASPA dictionary. A woman was rounding up pencils to be returned to the cabinet. As I walked toward the elevator, the oldest person there, a woman, asked if I’d be coming back.

“I heard you’re good,” she said, with the nicest smile.

I told her I would be back and that I’d had a great time. I felt embarrassed by how sincere I sounded, how much it meant to me to feel accepted.

While I was waiting for the subway to return home, three people I’d seen at the club approached me and introduced themselves. Riding the F train downtown, we looked at flash cards on one of their phones. Jumbles of vowels and consonants that could be anagrammed into words I’d never seen before. Ordinarily this kind of behavior—forgoing conversation to focus on an obsession—has felt unhealthy to me. Somehow, doing it with other people took the stain away, made it feel fun instead of abject. Back home, I compared and contrasted again. Sure, maybe it’s obsessive, and, yes, it looks and feels like addiction, but it’s just words and numbers and points, and no one steals from their mom or cheats on their partner; no one stabs anyone or blows their kid’s tuition. Substitution isn’t always a bad thing. Who says we need to live in perfect equipoise twenty-four hours a day, aggressively present, free of any and all distractions.

DISTRACTIONS, played off TRACT, a bingo with DISIONS.

 

screen shot 2024 05 06 at 20100 pm



Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top