Thursday, April 17, 2008

My dad was deadly at Scrabble. The guy had a keen eye for anagrams, and could turn a rack of seven crappy letters into a high scoring play every time. Plus the ol’ man knew just how drive you nuts.

If it was your turn and you took more than a minute, he’d start humming game show music to annoy you into going already. So you’d throw down some tiles and then he’d disapprove of your move. “That’s your word?! I waited all this time for that? Lemme see what you had.” Before you could object, he’d grab your rack and find a move that’s triple the points of what you came up with. Sounds humiliating, but he wasn’t trying to psyche you out; he just wanted to get the most out of his opponent. He seemed to believe in an open-book policy of playing – Dad would show you his rack, too, and say, “Mikey, I know there’s gotta be a bingo here, but I can’t figure it out. Help me out.”

He kicked my ass for years. It wasn’t until I developed my literati addiction that I began to increase my two- and three-letter-word lexicon and got him to add more curse words into his vocabulary because I’d win once in a while. He still beat me most of the time, but I was starting to give the guy a run for his money, right up to the end. I miss my worthy word game challenger.

Dad had set the bar for other competitors. Granted, I played plenty of tough people… but only online. I needed a rigorous real life rival.

So when I discovered there were a few Scrabble clubs in the LA area, I decided to give one of them a try. And it was everything I expected, having read Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players.

The West LA branch met in some senior center every Saturday. The room next door featured elder folks aerobics, where the gray-haired geezers looked endearing as they slow-stepped to old classic swing songs.

And the Scrabble room? Well, let me put it this way: I’m hardly some skinny, hip kid, but I was easily the thinnest, youngest and coolest guy in the place.

These folks were mostly old heavyset people who replaced social graces with knowledge of acceptable words with Q but no U. Many of them were awkward and analyzing the game just won by the branch’s champion, full of long words nobody ever actually uses. But none of this meant they weren’t perfectly nice. They welcomed me as a newbie and invited me to my first game.

I played one of the regular women there. I didn’t expect much of a challenge. I figured she was just an administrative type, there to induct me into their world. And hey, I was a pretty good player.

Not good enough. The lady beat me by over 40 points, which is what she scored on nearly every move. Damn, I was gonna have to step it up.

The next game was easier. Maybe I was ranked really low, considering my league record was 0-1, so they put me with one of the weaker players… or the old woman across from me was trying to lull me into a sense of security. I was sure any second now she’s stop dumping 3 or 4 tiles with weak entries and slam me with a triple word extravaganza. But it didn’t happen and I was batting .500.

The last game was with a kindly old gentleman who afterwards told me his life story: a former advertising writer who found that world so miserable he moved into teaching history. That was a decent job, he said, but living in the LA area for a long time, he got a jump on the real estate market, buying up properties in Pacific Palisades cheap and now can just live off the rent money. Normally I’m wary of landlords, but this guy just seemed too nice.

He was amazed at my two seven-letter words, but really I just got lucky. Well, I worked my way into having a rack of good letters, and AEINRS? (? = a blank) is good for about a billion bingos. I made MARINES, and then picked straight out of the bag TIPSIER. He wanted to challenge me on that word, but I warned him I could also make PITIERS, or SPIRITED off his D. The two bingos gave me an extra 100 points, which I needed to eke out a win.

Impressed, he suggested I join a tournament the next day. As a beginner, he said, I’d be ranked low and could do very well. He and his Scrabble club friends even offered to give me a ride up to Pasadena. “We could pick you up in the morning and make a day of it,” he said. “We like to pack a lunch and make a day of it.”

His cordiality wasn’t creepy. In fact, the camaraderie was contagious, but I think I felt completely overwhelmed by all the cryptograms. I was Scrabbled out.

I thanked them all, and politely declined the invitation. I haven’t been back since that first visit. Maybe as amicable as these people were, it just wasn’t my crowd. Maybe the improved weather makes me want to be outside on the weekends rather than inside at the Senior Center. Maybe the old man I miss playing with is my old man.

Or maybe I just like retiring from competitive Scrabble with a winning record: 2-1.


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