Ghosts of Scrabble Tournaments Past

In the middle of my fourth day of competing in the North American Scrabble Championship in Reno, I found myself with both blank tiles on my rack at the same time.  Now, everyone loves to draw a blank, because it can stand in for any letter of the alphabet of one’s choosing and vastly increases the likelihood of coming up with a “bingo” (playing all seven tiles on your rack in one go) and scoring an extra 50 points.  In fact, I like to say that those of us who share my predicament of having turned around one day and discovered that we are now “seniors” would never again have to worry about forgetting what we were about to say if we would all just play Scrabble.  It’s the one place in this world where drawing a blank is a good thing.

Drawing both blanks at one time, however, is another story entirely.  Sure, having two wild cards makes it even more likely that you’ll be able to play a bingo.  However, there are only two blanks in the entire game, two wonderful opportunities for an easy bingo that suddenly get cut down to just one opportunity when you have both blanks together.  Not only that, but trying to find a high-scoring word in your rack when you have to mentally fill in two tiles is a lot more difficult than it is with just one blank.  If you’ve never experienced this, you’ll just have to trust me.  You desperately try to think and you shuffle, shuffle, shuffle your tiles around on your rack while your clock ticks down second by second, running out your game time.  Sometimes you just have to give up and play a couple of normal tiles, holding onto the blanks in the hope of drawing better letters to go with them.  Of course, this means that on the next turn, you get to blow your mind all over again.  At least, you think, your opponent has been deprived of the blanks and their high-scoring opportunities.

On this particular occasion, I realized that, thanks to the blanks, I could play the word aubades.  As my heart leapt for joy, I suddenly remembered how I came to know such an unusual word.  It wasn’t from studying word lists, unfortunately.  This is a word that fellow word freak Bob Smith taught me one afternoon about seven or eight years ago at a Scrabble tournament just down the road in Sparks, Nevada.  As was his wont, Bob became fixated on a subject and would go on and on about it, reciting a miniature dissertation.  On that particular day, I just nodded and smiled as he regaled me about this four-vowel word that referred to a song of praise sung to one’s lover at dawn.  (Actually, I believe he said “sung to your lover’s elbow” or some such nonsense.)  It seemed so preposterous at the time that, of course, the word has stuck in my mind ever since.

Alas, Bob has since passed on to that big Scrabble board in the sky, but on that Tuesday in Reno, I silently said “here’s to you, Bob” as I prepared to plunk down my tiles and collect my extra 50 points.  However, I stopped myself just in time to realize that I could score more points if I instead played the far more plebeian word buddies, with the B placed on the triple letter score.  Thanks just the same, Bob.

My fellow Scrabbleheads who schlep around the country to tournaments several times each year are something of a big, extended, dysfunctional family.  Most of us have no contact whatever with each other at any other time — not by email, not by text message, nothing.  Yet when we see each other at the next tournament, it’s always “Boooobbbb!  Good to see ya!”  And we pick up right where we left off, filling each other in on the latest with our jobs, families and health.  It’s just so weird.  And I love it.

It’s not as if we don’t try.  It’s just that, like some kind of online RPG, we just don’t translate to the real world.  I’m talking about you, Ron from Idaho.  I’m still waiting for you to start that Words With Friends game with me.  I’m talking about you, Jennifer from Texas.  I’m still waiting to hear about whether you’re going to send me that Julia Glass novel.  I’m talking about you, Keith from San Diego.  We’re supposed to catch a game online, remember?

Like any family, we celebrate our joys and mourn our sorrows.  There are those who finally retire and can devote more time to Scrabble study and tournament travel.  There are those whose kids follow in their footsteps, like Stefan and his young daughter.  But there are also those who suddenly disappear from among our ranks.  My buddy, Lewis, for instance, with whom I’ve travelled to tournaments in Portland and Phoenix and Reno and San Jose, studying words handwritten on homemade flash cards all the way.  After his divorce, he decided he’d had enough of Scrabble and took up running marathons instead.  Then there’s Paul, who I’m happy to say is still playing after all these years, but whose son and daughter have disappeared from the Scrabble scene.  His daughter, he told me, got married and moved on to other priorities in life.  His son, who was one of the top players in the nation, somehow became disenchanted with the game and simply quit, much to Paul’s dismay.  Perhaps some of these will rejoin us a few years down the road.

Then there are those who are lost to us forever, although fond memories of words played and conversations shared across the board go on and on.  At the North American Scrabble Championship, one of the projection loop screens in the lobby featured the names and photos of fellow Scrabble players whom we have lost in the past year.  Although I did not know any of them personally, there are others who helped to shape my Scrabble playing style and now are no longer with us.

Bob, who taught me aubade, was quite a character, much to the frustration of many of his fellow players.  Obese like myself, he ran headlong into a slew of health problems in his later years.  But I won’t soon forget how, at one tournament in the middle of the summer, he brought a ginormous jar of stuffed olives with him into the playing room.  He must have bought the thing in Costco or some such place.  He had the top off the jar, which only was about a quarter full at that point, and the many flies who managed to get into the room were having a field day.  Bob liked to talk, and the fact that fifty or so other games were going on in the room at the time didn’t seem to deter him one bit.  People were hunched over their boards, trying to concentrate, and ol’ Bob’s voice carried a long way.  Finally, I’d hear someone yell “Bob!!  Be quiet!!”  How embarrassing.  Then there was the time at a January tournament in Reno (still talked about due to the snowstorm that kicked up during the next to last game of the tournament — we barely made it down the mountain on Interstate 80), when I returned from our lunch break to find that Bob would be my next opponent.  Just one problem:  Bob was fast asleep on the floor of the playing room.  Amazingly, the returning competitors simply stepped over him like this was the most normal thing in the world!  Uh, director?  Director!!  Should I start this guy’s clock or maybe, uh, call an ambulance or something?

Good old Bob.

The last time I saw the man, he was in a wheelchair, and I was more than a little shocked when he suddenly discovered he had to use the rest room right now, leapt up and literally ran out of the playing room.

Then there’s Gigi, who was such a wonderful Scrabble player, much higher rated than myself.  One year, we hosted a little Scrabble tournament in Fresno when I lived there (thank you, Lewis) and Gigi drove all the way down from Reno with two friends to play.  After the tournament, many of us hung around for additional games, but Gigi was tired and my wife drove her downtown to her hotel.  The next time I saw her was at the big Labor Day tournament in Portland, Oregon, where she summarily wiped the floor with me.  Again I had both blanks at the same time — I played ptomaine and she still beat me by, oh, a hundred points or so.

We lost poor Gigi the year before last when she traveled to Mexico to play in a tournament hosted by John, another of our Scrabble pals (he now lives year-round in Cabo, lucky duck!).  It was her birthday, and some of her friends had flown down to celebrate with her.  As she was crossing a busy street on foot to join her friends, a speeding car came along.

We will never forget you, Gigi.

Then there’s Al, another character whom many of us referred to as “Doc.”  Of French-Canadian origin (I would try not to laugh when he referred to the Z as the “zed”), he spent part of the year in Reno and part in southern California.  He was a retired ophthalmologist and had an opinion on just about everything.  At one tournament, I became quite peeved with the guy when he came right out and said that my obesity is clearly a sign of mental problems (and then went on and on about it).  Another time, he got my goat by challenging my belief in God and insisting that only a ninny would truck in such claptrap.  On both occasions, I kept quiet even though I so much wanted to say “mind your own business, you old fart!”  Then he beat me to pieces over the board.  The guy was good, what can I say?

Doc and his wife met their demise while driving near their home in Orange County about five or six years ago.  I don’t know the details, but I hear a drunk driver T-boned them.

Scrabble tournaments are happy occasions, reunions even, but we always take time to remember the ghosts of tournaments past who will remain in our memories for as long as we are able to shake the tile bag, hit the clock and mark our score sheets.

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