The dreams have started.
I always know when a big Scrabble tournament is coming up because the words, the tiles, the thrill and frustration of competition seep into my waking thoughts and invade my dreams.
On Friday, I head to Reno to compete in the North American Scrabble Championship. In the Scrabble world, it’s the annual blowout shindig, the place where the big girls and boys come out to play. It’s my first rodeo, and I am by no means certain of being able to hang on for eight seconds. I just pray that my face doesn’t get stomped on by the bull.
For five straight days, 295 of us will fight tooth and nail to hold onto our positions and maybe even move up a few spots. If the lesser tournaments I have attended are any indication, the competition will be intense. There will be blood, sweat and tears. There will be curses muttered under the breath and hearts a-pounding when just the right tiles leap out of the letter bag for that elusive triple-triple. I will kick myself for making stupid mistakes. I will lose games I should have won. I will win games I should have lost. And a couple of dozen times, I will grit my teeth and say “good game” to my smiling opponent when I really want to punch a hole in the wall and tear my freakin’ hair out. Just like on the old ABC Wide World of Sports shows we watched on Saturday afternoons as kids, there will be the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
The field is broken into four divisions, based on one’s rating, determined by performance in past tournaments. I will be playing in the bottom division, which means that I’m really not very good. However, I am all the way at the top of my division, seeded fifth out of a field of 45. This means that I have nowhere to go but down. Everyone will want a piece of me to pull up their own ratings, dragging me down into the pit in the process. True, I could have opted to “play up” (compete in the next higher division), where I’d be at the very bottom and would have nowhere to go but up. Passing up that opportunity, however, gives me the opportunity to maybe stay at the top of my own division and earn some prize money. Or not. A couple of mistakes, a few losses to lower rated players, and I could easily drop like a rock from fifth to 25th position, or even worse. It happens all the time. It’s a gamble, perhaps fitting for an event being held in downtown Reno.
Not that it’s about money. On the contrary, it’s about proving just how good you are. The real prize money is in Division 1, where the top players in the world compete for many thousands of dollars. Down here in the cheap seats, however, the only real money involved is the hundreds of dollars we had to lay out for transportation, food, entry fees, equipment and accommodations at the host hotel for at least five nights. I know perfectly well I’ll never see any of that money back. Tournament Scrabble is an expensive hobby. Case in point: I haven’t even left home yet and just spent over $400 for a new board and timer. These were far from impulse purchases; they were necessary to compete in the tournament. My old timer finally died on me, and no amount of cleaning and fresh batteries would encourage it to come back to life. As for my old beat-up board, it is rectangular — fine for playing in a local club, but a definite no-no for officially sanctioned tournaments. One must have a round board that swivels so that the opponents can easily turn it around to face them when it’s their turn to play. Many players spend heaps of money to have customized boards made for them. I settled for ordering a standard model from an online purveyor. You want a case to protect your board from being banged up in transit? That’s extra. You want wheels on that case so you can pull it behind you while lugging it through hotel lobbies instead of lifting 20 pounds of dead weight? That’s extra, too.
Fortunately, I have collected enough racks and sets of tiles over the years that I didn’t have to lay out any money there. I should mention that each competitor must bring a full set of equipment; failure to have everything needed at hand at the start of the game may result in a forfeit. And, of course, one must have one’s own supply of score sheets. I was low, which meant a trip to the copy shop and, you guessed it, more money down the drain.
And I thought golfers spent a lot of money on their little obsession. I only wish there a way I could take a deduction from my income taxes for this stuff.
There are many theories about what makes a good Scrabble player. Some say you must have superior verbal skills, while others insist it’s all about mathematics. Some say you must have “board vision,” while others believe the key is in balancing your rack between vowels and consonants. Some say you must have memorized word lists, while others insist it’s mostly luck.
All of them are right.
I do not possess a photographic memory, nor do I have the time or energy to spend hours each day studying endless columns and pages of words. My practice consists mostly of playing a lot of word games. For more than a decade, I have participated in an ongoing Scrabble tournament with opponents from around the world, conducted entirely over email. I play Scrabble online in realtime on a site called ISC (www.isc.ro). I play endless games of Words with Friends on my phone when I should be doing other things.
And, yes, I’ve even dabbled some in memorizing some of the “must know” lists of “bingo stems,” those six-letter combinations that, with the addition of one additional letter, will create a rack-clearing “bingo” that rewards me with a 50-point bonus. There are hundreds of such word lists, and I claim familiarity with only a few. There are mnemonics, funky little phrases to jog one’s memory as to which letters go with which bingo stems. Phrases like “Old MVP jogs with a crutch” to remember the bingos that can be made out of the tiles in SENIOR or “Prez got caught having Monica” to remind you of what you can do with TOILES.
I’m not a fanatic, and believe me, there are many who are. Hard-driving competitors who own shoe boxes full of annotated index cards, dog-eared word books scribbled in pencil three ways to Sunday, special computer programs that feature Scrabble puzzles and warn you when you’re falling behind in your studying.
Does any of this really help you win? Sometimes it does. Other times, not so much. Most of us are not mental giants like Nigel Richards, who recently won the French Scrabble championship without speaking a word of French — by spending nine weeks memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary. We try to get a good night’s sleep, eat a decent breakfast and hope that the ol’ grey matter is firing on all cylinders. As for me, I silently pray a lot when I’m seated at the board. I pray that God will jog my memory to recall the right mnemonic for the right word list for the tiles that happen to be on the board and on my rack at that very moment. I expect that I will miss a lot of the obscure words that I never had time to study. And yet, I hope that I don’t blunder by missing the opportunity to play a high-scoring word that I’ve been over many times. In Scrabble, as in life, sometimes you can’t recognize the gem that is staring you right in the face.
For amateurs such as myself, much of the battle lies in fighting the tyranny of the timer. Each player starts with 25 minutes on the clock. Go over your time and you pay the penalty of 10 points for every minute or portion thereof. This means that memorizing a few word lists doesn’t do you a lot of good unless you can instantaneously recall them. If you don’t have a list down cold as ice, it probably won’t help you in the clutch.
I have been a Scrabble poseur for enough years now, have spent enough time faking it, that there are a few word lists I could probably recite in my sleep. This may have something to do with the dreams.
Like last night, for instance. In my dream, my clocking was running down and I was behind in the score. I had almost no time left and I was sweating out my final rack, my chance to “bingo out” and win or, conversely, to choke and lose. I knew there was a seven-letter word in my rack somewhere. I could positively feel it in my guts. But, try as I may, I could not come up with it.
And then I woke up, drenched in sweat, heart pounding.
It wasn’t even a particularly creative dream, as that very situation has, at one time or another, happened to most of us who travel from state to state like nomads and lay out our hard-earned money to play this silly game.
And sometimes, the right word comes to you just in the nick of time and, just like that, you go from zero to hero faster than you can say “82 and out.”
Later, of course, you will look up your rack online and find out that there were at least three viable bingos in your rack, any one of which would have won you the game, but you, lacking the grace under pressure so touted by Hemingway, couldn’t come up with a single one.
And you’ll wonder why a loser like you bothers to play this game at all.
And then you’ll go home, and like an addict hooked on horse, you’ll try to stay away but you’ll need another fix, and when you start shaking with the DTs, you’ll slide that credit card out of your wallet and dial up the hotel for reservations for the next tournament on the circuit. And as the weeks wind down to the big day, you’ll find yourself stealing glances at word lists on your phone when you should be working and wracking your brain because you can’t remember the anagram for TOILETS.