Fast-Paced Scrabble

I grew up playing Scrabble with my sister and my grandmother. We kept score and used a clearly defined set of house rules, cobbled from a combination of official rules and whatever clarifications of gray areas my sister and I could come to a consensus on (the latter, often as not, born out of some mid-game controversy). My grandmother, always a paragon of patience and accommodation for our nonsensical whims, was tested I’m sure, as we agonized over turns, attempting to figure out the best approach to hitting double-letter and double-word score boxes with our J, X, Q, or Z tiles to maximize the point output. Grandma didn’t worry so much about the score, often as not settling on three-letter words for three-point scores, unfazed as our scores doubled or tripled hers.

My sister left for college, but Grandma and I continued to play Scrabble on our weekly visits, and, if anything, with greater frequency, as so many of our old standby games demanded a minimum of three players, while Scrabble was mostly unchanged.

I got faster, rarely taking more than a minute between turns. I can attribute a lot of that to familiarity with the game—for having seen so many combinations of tiles, so many formations on the board, and so more quickly seeing my way to the highest point play, or the play that would open the board if we were clustered too tightly in a corner. Our roles reversed as Grandma, growing older and slower by each dimension needed to puzzle out any play at all, and while she took her turns I could plot two or more options for my next turn—playing immediately after she was done.

And I recall a day in high school, senior year, playing Scrabble with my friend Dylan in our Chemistry classroom. I’m not sure why we would have played there, but can only fathom that the AP Exam was over and we’d exhausted whatever lab Mrs. Lorenz had planned. So we played.

We fell into that familiar dynamic, in which I’d play a word quickly and strategize different follow up moves while my friend deliberated how best to respond just that one. He apologized for taking so long with each turn, and I told him not to worry about, all the while aiming to hide my smugness.

And Ben, looking on as Dylan rubbed his forehead in frustration, commented, “Chin’s not that much faster than you. He just uses your turn to figure out what he’s going to do next.” He may have been trying to be nice to Dylan. Otherwise, it might have been a simple expression of a need that I recognized in myself, too, that I expect is common in precocious boys without opportunities to effect much change in the world—that we feel a need to point out patterns when we spot them, to call attention to our own skills of observation.

I haven’t played Scrabble in years now—a fact that I’d find not just tough to swallow, but complete anathema when I fell between the ages of eight and eighteen. I’m not sure I could have conceptualized a life like that. And yet still, the game calls to me now and again. Seeing the word quizzical in a book for example, I mentally calculate the Scrabble-tile point total if that Q-fell on a double-letter space, and if the word overlapped a triple-word box. I recalibrate, knowing full well, of course, that there’s only one Z tile in play, and so one of those Zs would have to be a blank tile and thus worth no points; I recognize, too, that at nine-letters long, at least two letters would have to have already been on the board, and most likely it would have been Q-U-I-Z that already existed, thus immediately reducing the potential word score because, while I could still attain the triple-word score, no single double- or triple-letter value could be assigned to the tiles already in play (unless happenstance, for example, left two I tiles two spaces between one another, with plenty of room for play on either side).

I imagine I’ll play Scrabble again. With my own children, or if time and biology favor me, grandchildren. But I imagine a different style of play then. Less rapid-fire and perhaps I’ll suggest that we don’t keep score. For as good as those seventy, eighty-point turns felt, I recall a better, purer joy in weaving words between words, interconnecting spaces to create connections horizontally and vertically, sometimes three or four of them at a time. These were the turns that felt less like mastery than poetry, less about score than creating something new.