Happiness in a hundred wooden tiles

I’ve mentioned before how the last few weeks have been busier than usual, what with having temporary work and all.  During that time, of course, I had to cut a lot of lower-priority activities out of my schedule, so for the last several days I’ve been playing catch-up on things like lawn care, house cleaning and … well, and this blog.  Not to mention getting used once again to being at home and taking care of my son through the day.  It’s been a blizzard of activity, but I think I’m finally getting back into the swing of things.

And that means beginning to pick up some of the “fun stuff” once again – things I do just for grins and giggles.  (I can’t just agonize over the state of the American church 24/7, tempting though it may be – I’d exhaust myself in no time.)  I’m doing a lot of reading – currently I’m in the middle of Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.  I’m keeping up the maintenance on the Stockton ‘88s, my team in the Legends of Baseball all-time fantasy league – currently they’re 26-16 and in second place in their division, but there are still holes in the lineup and pitching rotation to fix.  And just today, I was able to get back to something that I heartily enjoy but haven’t been able to indulge in for over three weeks due to time constraints.

Said indulgence?  Scrabble.

I’m going to assume that pretty much everyone reading this is familiar with the Scrabble board game – it’s been around since the 1940s, and rare is the person (in the United States, anyway) who hasn’t played it at least once.  I played it on occasion as a kid, and would occasionally join in on a game in college or at a friend’s house.  And I won more often than I lost – I’ve always been fairly good with words, so it came naturally.

But two things happened in the last few months that raised Scrabble (should I be putting the little “TM” after it?  will Hasbro sue me if I don’t?) from “just another board game” to “regular pastime.”  One is a book I read.  The other is that my daughter got bored.

Last one first.  My kids have regular bedtimes – my son gets “lights out” 7:30 p.m., my daughter at 8 (except for Fridays, when she can stay up later, and a few very special occasions).  And usually the half-hour between when he drops and she does is “game time” – she and I will play a board game or card game or whatever.  The problem we ran into is that there were very few games we could play that were fun for both of us.

Some, like Candy Land and The Ungame, were either too easy to be engaging or quickly became repetitive and boring.  Others, like chess and Boggle, were far easier for me (she is only seven, after all) and were thus unenjoyable for her – like me, she can’t get into a task where she doesn’t have some success.  (I was always taught that you shouldn’t purposely play badly to let a kid win.  They can usually see through your ploy – I always did when folks did it with me – and recognize that they didn’t win “fair and square.”  Besides, if you play your best and the child beats you, it’s a real boost to their self-esteem.  Having observed my daughter when she destroys me at a game, I can vouch for this view, though I understand some may disagree.)

Anyway, take those two groups out, and we were left with only dominoes, Go Fish and 21 – kind of a limited set of choices.  So over the past few months, we’ve been buying more games in the hope of finding some that will be interesting without being too difficult for a grade-schooler to cream her dad at.  Sorry has been a winner, as has Uno.  The jury is still out on Connect Four, but I think it’ll fly.  She’s a natural at Monopoly, but you can’t play a game of Monopoly in thirty minutes, so we have to save that for Fridays.

And then there’s Scrabble, the one tentative failure among the recent purchases.  My daughter is pretty swift for a seven-year-old; she probably has the vocabulary of the average kid four years her senior.  Unfortunately, Daddy has a vocabulary so huge that people sometimes make fun of him for it.  (You think I’m joking.  I’m not joking.)  So it was a mismatch from the get-go, and we’re having to adapt.  Scrabble games between us in the future will probably take one of two forms – either we team up and clobber the Supermodel (when she has time to participate and is willing to indulge us), or we turn it into a teaching session, learning new words and how words are constructed.  On those bases, she and I can both enjoy it.

But even when things weren’t going so well with it, it got me intrigued about the game all over again.  And then I ran into this book called Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, about the world of professional Scrabble.  You read that right – there are professional Scrabble players, playing in tournaments with actual prize money, all over the U.S. and around the world.  Even below that level, there are hundreds of competitive Scrabble clubs where people meet for the sole purpose of enjoying the game/beating the pants off each other.  There is a National Scrabble Association that churns out a rating for each participating player, and several newsletters (put out by the NSA or others) that go into detail on the game and report on tournaments and key matches.  I know, I never knew it existed either!

And I never knew the depths you could immerse yourself in this game.  There are people who work on memorizing – memorizing! – all of the words in the Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary (OSPD to the cognoscenti), so they can compete better.  There are arguments over whether certain words should be allowed, and whether a word’s meaning matters in the context of the game or if words are just a means to an end, tools used to score points regardless of their definitions.  And, as you might guess, there are some really interesting personalities at the higher echelons of competitive Scrabble – not too surprising, as let’s face it, how many  normal, well-adjusted people do you know that would spend dozens of hours a week trying to become a world champion at a board game?  Chess grandmasters tend to be borderline personalities, for crying out loud, and they at least make decent coin; you can’t imagine the kind of folks who work to win a far less well-funded Scrabble title!  (If you’re curious, though, hunt down Fatsis’ book – it’s a carnival ride.)

Now, with a Supermodel wife and two small kids at home, and something that at least resembles a life in dim light, I don’t think I could ever get that obsessed about Scrabble.  But I enjoy playing it, I think I’m pretty good at it, and I like being able to compete in something I like doing and can do well.  I’m also intrigued by the possibility of finding out just how good I am, and how good I can become without becoming a loopy-loo about it.  So lately, at least until a few weeks ago, I was going to the Pogo game website and playing the game there.

Playing at Pogo isn’t competitive-level; the other players are dilettantes like myself.  You’re allowed to use an online dictionary that the site provides, and they even give you a list of all legal two-letter words (very important building blocks for certain kinds of plays).  But it at least gives you a chance to practice against others of similar skill level (or against the computer), to learn the rules and the nuances of play, and to see what you’re made of.  And I’ve done pretty well, first at the Advanced level and then at Expert (one step below the top level, Master).  I’ve won about three games for every one I’ve lost, anyway.

That’s boosted my confidence to the point that I’m thinking about checking out one of the nearby NSA-supported clubs and going against live, in-person humans.  I’m not there yet, and it will require some planning, as the nearest ones are in Sacramento and the eastern San Francisco Bay (all at least 50 miles/80 km from Stockton).  But why not, if I have the time?  I may even get the chance to earn some official NSA ranking that lets me know where they feel I rate – that might be fun.

After a few weeks’ hiatus due to being busy, I got back on the 15×15 board today to commune with the English language and the electronic equivalent of those hundred wooden tiles.  I was worried I might be rusty, so I decided to play against the Pogo computer, albeit set at Expert level.  And then the computer played SWORE as the first word, I looked at my rack and saw B, L, O, R, U, W, blank … and started getting ideas.  I tried a few, checked the online dictionary, and found one that worked: SUBWORLD, using the S from SWORE, the blank as a D and landing the last letter on a triple word score.  Total: 89 points, including 50 for the “bingo” (using all seven tiles on my rack).  I maintained my lead for awhile, began to make more high-scoring plays later in the game, and ended up winning in a walk, 391 to 196.

Yep, I’m back.  And loving it.

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