Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Confession: I Am a Scrabble-holic

I am addicted to Scrabble.

There, I've said it.

But I have a defense: I was indoctrinated into its world at a very young age.

My "enabler" into the realm of Double Letter Scores and Triple Word Scores was my mother, who also adored the game.

The problem was that until I came along and was old enough to play, she had no opponents. And this was long before an App could be downloaded to a phone to play with total strangers.

Scrabble was supposed to be a diversion for my mother and my father. Dad loved crossword puzzles (side note: he swept me into that obsession, and now each week, I attack the New York Times puzzle with abandon). Mom loved word games. And so Scrabble was supposed to be the common ground on which they met and competed.

Except that Dad hated Scrabble. He had no patience for it. Waiting an interminable amount of time for an opponent to toss down a few lettered tiles and tot up the score was the very definition of boredom to him.

So the Scrabble set that Mom purchased for him one Christmas early in their marriage was banished to the top shelf in our living room, where it lived--still with a Christmas to/from tag taped to the corner--with the orphaned mittens and the American Flags we only got out once a year on July 04.

Until the kids came along. Mom tried to interest my brothers in the game, but they had no stomach for it, either.

But with me, it caught fire. I think probably because I was more of an avid reader than they were.

Mom started small: We would play Scrabble Junior, where the words were predetermined on the board, and all that was required was to lay down the tiles in order. I remember them being about the size of flooring tiles, so when one spelled A-I-R-P-L-A-N-E, the resulting string of tiles was about the length of an actual jumbo jet.

But before long, she migrated me to "real" Scrabble. No funny pictures. No cutesy tiles. This was the real wooden racks and the faintly moldy-smelling cardboard board. I also remember that close by, Mom always had a gigantic dictionary--the one we used to prop up small kids (me!) at the Thanksgiving table to get them to the proper eating height. Many a potential war was settled by that book.

I don't really remember much detail of my time as a fledgling Scrabble player. It seems like I was born knowing how to play. But I'm guessing Mom started rather small. Bunch of two- and three-letter words.

And lots of help along the way.

To assist in play (and, as an ancillary benefit, to build vocabulary), we were allowed to "shop." The rules of shop were that I could sift through the dictionary and try to find playable words that coordinated with the tiles in my rack and the plays on the board. Mom did say that this activity was to be done in a reasonable amount of time, most often as she considered her own turn, so as to speed play along.

I probably shopped quite a lot.

I also learned quite a lot.

I know it expanded my vocabulary. And improved my spelling. And as I got better verbally, Mom threw another gauntlet down: I then had to keep score on a little score pad. So as an offshoot of play, my math skills were getting better, too.

I have such fond memories of this. During the summers, we would wile away the roasty afternoons (we had no air conditioner) in the living room, splayed out on the floor with a box fan stirring the humid air. Often, records were on the stereo, providing accompaniment to our battle of the words. And I well remember window-rattling thunderstorms coming through late on those afternoons, trying to break the grip of heat and humidity that threatened to strangle us.

Through it all, we'd click tiles, re-arrange racks, compliment each other on good plays, argue like dogs over controversial ones, and gloat over wins.

I also played upside-down. The spinning of the board through each turn was a logistical nightmare that usually resulted in scrambled tiles all over the board. So I decided to skip it. I had already developed the talent to be able to read upside-down; playing Scrabble upside-down was not much more of a challenge.

Over the years, as I improved, I eventually became skillful enough to beat my mother at Scrabble. She was a good sport about it, but in response, there were some modifications on our house rules. Initially, my shopping trips were limited to two per game. Then it became one per game. And then the boom was lowered: No more shopping.

My win/loss rate dipped somewhat with these additional challenges, but eventually, it started to climb again. Before long, I was beating her on a regular basis.

We then decided to make things more interesting. We'd subtract winner's score from loser's score and play for a penny a point in the difference. Pay up was at Christmastime, when it was presumed that the victor could use an extra buck or two. I remember Mom's debt rising to $20 or so and thoroughly enjoying the payoffs.

Mom played with her sisters, too. And my Aunt Jean (a family friend, not really an aunt) who Mom always characterized as a Scrabble whiz. To her glee, in a very high-stakes match (there was pride on the line), Mom beat Aunt Jean handily, probably because she had sharpened her own skills in the process of sharpening mine. 

One Christmas, I bought Mom the Delux Scrabble set. Oh, we were living the high-life then. The board had small indentations on each square, meaning that once a tile was placed, the likelihood of it being accidentally jarred out of place was reduced considerably. It also rotated, meaning that I no longer had to play upside-down. Didn't matter. I was so accustomed to it by then that I continued the habit.

I miss playing Scrabble with Mom.

She's gone, now. Even before the ravages of dementia took her life, they took her Scrabble skills. Just as they would eventually take every other skill from her. Such a waste. And so tragically sad.

But as I continue to play (on my Kindle, most often, for alas, I've been unable to interest any of my own clan in Scrabble), I can still hear her in my head, extolling the value in being able to rattle off two-letter words beginning with "e":

Eh, El, Em, En, Ex

And the joy of a word like qadi (a Muslim community) to use in the dire situation of having a "q" with no "u."

If heaven has box fans and stereo systems and rainy afternoons, I hope that one day I can look across a crossword-style board at a display of words that will never be used in ever day conversation and see her lying on her stomach, up on her elbows, chin in hand, legs crossed behind her, considering her next move.

That would be a D-E-L-I-G-H-T.

Which, on a Triple Word Score would equal 86 points (delight = 12; x 3 for the triple word is 36; + 50 for a seven-tile Bingo bonus = 86).

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