March 6th, 2008

Word Up, Yo

The English language is a beautiful thing. Oh, sure, it’s a difficult one – I can’t imagine trying to learn it as a second language (“The tough coughs as he ploughs the dough” anyone?) – but it can be downright lovely. I love the way some words sound, the way they roll off the tongue. I often get phrases stuck in my head the way some people get tunes stuck in theirs.

I’m not sure if it’s my love of words that makes me love Scrabble or if it’s the other way around. Either way, there’s hardly anything I like more than a good game of Scrabble. My preferred method is to sit down to an actual game board and feel the tiles and spin the board and enjoy the conversation over the game. I’ve not played timed games, and I’m not sure I’d like it. The slow pace of a casual game suits me well.

I’ve literally been around Scrabble for as far back as I can remember. When my dad would have deacon’s meetings at church, my mom would play Scrabble with the other deacon’s wives. I would watch sometimes, but when I was a kid, it was boring to me. I didn’t really understand it. and I certainly didn’t know most of the words they were playing.

I don’t remember when it was I tried it the first time, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do much better than “cat” and “food.” I didn’t play again for a long time.

The summer of 1995 is when I began playing in earnest. I traveled with a summer drama team and my mom and dad bought me an Official Scrabble Dictionary before I left on tour. I bought myself a travel edition of the game to go along with the dictionary and played a lot of Scrabble during those 12 weeks. The thing about Scrabble is, the more you play it, the better you get at it. You learn new words and start to remember more and more with each game. It was a great introduction to the game I’d seen for so long.

Since I essentially learned how to play on my own, I followed the official rules included with my travel Scrabble. When I got home from tour and started playing with my mom, I learned that the deacon’s wives had varied a bit from the official rules – nothing major, just little things like end scoring and first tile rules, but they were in the rules, so like the brash young upstart I was, I suggested that’s how we play – after all, it’s how I’d played all summer… and how the game was meant to be played. To my dear mother’s credit, she didn’t smack the nonsense out of me and graciously adapted to this new way of playing.

There is something about playing by the actual rules that makes the game for me. They define and guide the game, making it the perfect balance of luck and skill that it is. Changes to the rules change the feel of the game and make it less enjoyable to me. “Let’s play a casual game!” you say. “Let’s include proper nouns and let me look up words in the dictionary to see if they’re real words before I play my tiles!” “Oh,” I’d reply, “and here I thought we were going to play Scrabble.” I don’t care for variations like Literati for this same reason – it’s not Scrabble. I have no desire to play Super Scrabble, either. What good is a score of 500 if it’s artificially inflated by the changed board? A 100-point word in Scrabble is a heckuva play. I imagine that a 100-point word in Super Scrabble happens if you accidentally spill your tiles on the board, what with its quadruple word score spaces and all.

I’ll never be a championship-level player, and I’m fine with that. I’ve read what they do to become championship-level, and I’m not ready to do that. Memorizing lists of 2-letter words and hooks and prefixes and the racks of letters you’re mostly likely to get — it seems a bit more OCD than I want to let myself get. I have a page-a-day Scrabble calendar, I know a few Q without U words, and I know way more 2-letter words than you might suspect existed, and I’m comfortable with that level for now.

As I mentioned, sitting down to a real board and playing is my favorite method, and a two-player game is preferred. More players changes the letter drawing and has more randomness to it. The two-player match is the true test of skill. I don’t play against the other person so much as I play against myself, trying to do better than I have before. I don’t even mind losing – though I wouldn’t want to lose all the time – as it’s the process I enjoy. Playing with someone who is better than me is a good way to learn new methods and new words, and I welcome it, even if someone (Marshall) has beaten me five straight times.

I play online these days, as Scrabulous has made it easier. Yes, it’s very clearly a rip-off of Scrabble and should be closed down by Hasbro (something they are in the process of, actually), but it plays exactly like Scrabble and has some great features, like letting you play your turn when you have the chance (rather than a whole game all at once), keeping track of your every bingo (using all 7 of your tiles for one word) and keeping track of your rating. There’s a version of it in Facebook that is particularly useful, and it says I’ve completed 79 games there and am in the middle of 7 more. I don’t like that I can’t converse with people while I’m playing, and I miss the feel of the tiles and being able to shuffle them manually, but I also get to play a lot more and against a lot of different people all over the country and the world. It also challenges my trust in people, because there’s no way to know if they’re using helpers or word-finders, and I have to believe they are not, and that’s a good exercise for my non-trusting self. After all, they have to believe the same of me, so it’s a fair trade.

I played Sudoku for a time a couple years back and was enjoying it, but found that I was having trouble doing crossword puzzles and playing Scrabble. There was something about the thought processes involved that made it hard for me to do both – logic versus language or some such. I gave up Sudoku pretty quickly.

3 Comments on “Word Up, Yo”

  1. The Bon says:

    Woah, I'd never heard of helpers or wordfinders. Clearly, since my scrabble game is fairly poor compared to yours.

  2. Sizzledowski says:

    I don't know if you saw this when I posted it a long, long time ago, so I thought this would be the appropriate place to put it:

  3. brent-ley says:

    We recently got a Scrabble game but haven't played it yet. Now I feel kind of bad about that. I will say though that when it is "game time" around here Rummikub rules. I guess we're both numbers people…just look at what we both do all day!

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