My parents owned a Scrabble set since the 1950s, but I cannot recall ever seeing them play the game. The three of us knew that it was stored in the big bottom drawer of the hutch in the dining room, with the cancelled checks, newspaper clippings and the pieces of my mother’s old Monopoly set.
Occasionally, my sisters and I would ask permission to pull out the Scrabble box. We had some fairly imaginative ideas of what could be done with it. We didn’t play Scrabble; we played with the Scrabble set.
We’d display one of the racks on the living room carpet, lay a candle in its cradle and refer to it as Candlewood Lake (a place I had seen on a map). We would set out the tiles in curving lines to represent a path, not unlike the slate path just outside the front door of our house. We’d set the mauve board in an upside down V to represent a roof or a house or a tent. We would make up fanciful stories to go with our Scrabble props. This was a lot more fun than spelling dumb old words!
During my college days, I played many dozens of games of Monopoly and backgammon, but never Scrabble. I had forgotten about the game.
In fact, twenty years went by before I rediscovered Scrabble. After Donna and I, two certified Internet addicts, were married, we began playing Upwords and Tangleword online. We bought another computer and a few games on CD. Among them was Hasbro’s Scrabble for Windows. After that, there was no turning back.
For our first Christmas, one of the gifts I bought for Donna was a tiny ring box that looked like a folded Scrabble board, colored squares and all. Inside was a tiny Scrabble rack holding itty bitty tiles.
Not too long after that, Hasbro updated its electronic Scrabble game, much for the worse in our opinion. The formerly snazzy board now sported an ugly dark border and the speed of the game slowed down to a snail’s pace. When I complained to Hasbro, they indicated that we could return the CD with its jewel case to the place of purchase for a full refund. We did so.
That’s when Donna discovered the Internet Scrabble Club (www.isc.ro), then as now the best place to play realtime Scrabble online. I was instantly hooked. I was able to choose my level of competition — not too easy, not too hard. And I was able to play with opponents from all over the world. Once we offered up $20 for a paid membership, I was even able to play against “the bots,” ISC’s artificial intelligence that guaranteed that I would have a worthy opponent any time of the day or night. When I worked the swing shift and returned home well after midnight, I knew I could still get in a couple of games.
I kept hearing online that there were people who got together IRL to play Scrabble. I kept signing up for a theoretical local Scrabble group on a site called Meet Up. Only problem was that the meets always were canceled due to lack of sufficient interest.
Many of my coworkers were book nerds like myself, and I frequently asked what they were reading. One night, I saw one of them had a book with an unusual cover; square cut-outs revealed Scrabble tiles beneath. The book was Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak, and I immediately ordered a copy.
This fascinating book introduced me to the world of Scrabble clubs and tournaments. I just wished I lived in area where such things were available. Before long, I switched jobs, we moved, and I found myself in a city with a weekly Scrabble club that met at a local pizza joint. After joining this group, its members regaled me with stories of distant Scrabble tournaments they had attended. Just like in the book! I knew this was something I had to do.
I started by attending a Sunday afternoon Scrabble tournament in California’s Bay Area, about a five-hour round trip. Several of us from the club would pack into a car and cruise down the highway studying Scrabble words densely printed on index cards. The idea was to identify the “bingo,” the seven-letter, rack-clearing word that netted players a 50-point bonus.
“AEINSTZ!” the reader in the front passenger seat would call out.
“ZANIEST, ZEATINS!” would come the response from the back seat.
I was amazed at how on earth they managed to accomplish this feat of mental gymnastics. Soon, I learned the secret. It was a matter of studying, I was told.
Studying what? Studying endless, lengthy lists of words. It turns out there are particular letter combinations that occur over and over, are likely to be drawn out of the tile bag, and hence are worthy of the time to memorize.
I bought a study book and started with the most basic combination, TISANE. These six letters combine with nearly every letter of the alphabet to create multiple bingos. Initially, the list seemed mind-boggling, but in a few months, I was able to recite “TISANE + A: ENTASIA, TAENIAS. TISANE + B: BANTIES, BASINET. TISANE + C: ACETINS, CINEAST. TISANE + D: DESTAIN, DETAINS, INSTEAD, NIDATES, SAINTED, STAINED.
It took me about six months to memorize just the first word list (and there are hundreds of them), but I learned that, with enough repetition, I could do it! More than that, I found that I had become “one of them.”
I had turned into one of those crazy Scrabble addicts that Stefan Fatsis had written about. I was still losing most of my games, but I also won a few. I realized it wasn’t about winning or losing, however. It was about the love of the game.
As a bookish nerd, it didn’t take much for me to fit right into the Scrabble culture. And a culture it is. Spending hundreds of dollars and driving hundreds of miles to reach one Scrabble tournament, I could hardly wait for the next one. And at every tournament, we, the far-flung competitors, greeted each other as the best of friends before competing fiercely against one another across the board.
We might be in Reno or Phoenix or Portland or San José. We might be in a hotel ballroom below the crystal chandeliers or in a pizzeria, picking pepperoni off the board. The location didn’t really matter, however, as we were together doing the thing we loved.
We were home.