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THE OBSERVER
The spell of Scrabble

 

By Sam Allis, 6/24/2001

I take Scrabble about as seriously as I do Parcheesi, a game at which my grandmother taught me to cheat on rainy afternoons. My daughter and I keep vague score, and each awards style points to the other if taken with a particular move. Purists find the whole thing appalling.

There are Scrabble nuts, as there are fly-fishing fruitcakes and mah-jongg bizarros, but I'd never met any. So imagine my surprise to find a Competitive Scrabble course in the catalog of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, that Brattle Street lodestar of the strange and wondrous.

(I was uncommonly interested in another course - Introduction to Sex. Whatever was to be taught just had to be spellbinding. Alas, no one signed up for it, a condition I blame squarely on Prozac.)

Anyway, off I went last Monday evening to see why people would actually pay to sharpen their deviousness on the board. What I found was an incendiary mix of low Scrabble self-esteem and a robust craving for revenge. All in all, my kind of people.

Take Ruth, who is working on a big old resentment toward her daughter. ''She beats me every single time,'' reports Ruth. ''We've gotten into major fights over this. I'd like to know just once how it feels to win.''

If I were Ruth, I wouldn't tell the kid I'm getting help. Just bide your time and then destroy her. Indeed, says our redoubtable teacher, Ben Loiterstein, players often hide their tutoring from their persecutors to make the kill more delicious.

Jane had played on a Scrabble computer disk before showing up at a Scrabble club in Lexington, considered one of the strongest in the country. (Lexington?) ''I was told, `You have to be prepared to be beaten,''' she says. ''They matched me with a little boy named Leland who wiped the floor with me.''

You can tell that Joe plays in a different ballpark because he enters the room and says, ''Greetings, earthlings.'' But Joe hits the bull's-eye when he relates his Scrabble experience: ''I had a girlfriend with a PhD in English and I always clobbered her. I had another girlfriend with a PhD in statistics and she always clobbered me.''

In other words, an intimate knowledge of the Victorian novel takes you nowhere in a Scrabble slugfest. The Rosetta Stone of the game, says Loiterstein, is this: The top 1 percent of players in the country have mathematical backgrounds. ''This means it's a game of probability,'' he explains.

Stefan Fatsis, a sports reporter for The Wall Street Journal who spent more than a year in the weird world of Scrabble for his new book, ''Word Freak,'' agrees: ''It's not a word game,'' he told me last week. ''It's a math game. That's the dirty little secret.''

Proper English favored by all of us above third grade doesn't do you much good either. The coin of the realm are 96 ludicrous two-letter words that Scrabble killers employ ruthlessly to punish the competition.

These two-letter pygmies include: ER (expresses hesitation), UM (indicates hesitation), ET (a past tense of eat), SH (urges silence), and all the low-rent spellings of letters like EN, EM, and ES. Have they no shame?

None. The geeks who memorize them win with them - at a price. The price is that no one likes them when they do so. Indeed, no one should like them when they do so. ''You can't play with your family anymore if you learn them,'' says Linda, who plays Scrabble over the Internet with Romanians.

''We run into this all the time,'' John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association, says with a yawn. ''Take `za' for pizza. It's not good for Scrabble yet, but it probably will be in two years.'' Nuts. It wasn't a word in the '60s when I first used it (''I love cold za in the morning'') and it's not one now.

The plot thickens around what words are not in the bowdlerized Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, published by Merriam-Webster and owned by Hasbro. In 1994, Hasbro deleted 176 words deemed offensive by the Hasbro word police in conjunction with the National Scrabble Association. (The offending words are in a separate tournament list of words for competitive players.)

Hasbro had received complaints from the Anti-Defamation League after Holocaust survivors playing Scrabble had encountered the word ''Jew'' in a dictionary used as a verb. Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld needed this like a hole in the head and, as a good capitalist, gutted the dictionary of Romper Room no-no's like ''fatso'' and ''papist.''

In case you've forgotten, when censorship goes up against the American dollar, go with the green every time.

But as long as you remember that Scrabble has almost nothing to do with English, you're fine. Focus on bingo - the move, not the game. Bingo is the Scrabble term used when you clear all seven letters from your rack in one word. Like ozone, I'm told it exists but have never seen it. My man Loiterstein says it's a snap once you start thinking strategically.

So: think multiple words with a single move. Think parallel instead of perpendicular. Look first at the board for placement like the killers do, not at your rack of letters like the rest of us schmucks. Never play a math major. And steer clear of Lexington.

If you do lose, I see no reason to be a good sport about it.

Sam Allis's e-mail address is allis@globe.com

This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 6/24/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

 

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