My Crazy, Addicted Scrabble Tournament Life

Let's Play

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 (, 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.


My Mother’s Monopoly Set


Growing up in the sixties and seventies, my sisters and I were rabid devotees of every ilk and variety of board game.  We accumulated them slowly, as we usually had to wait until a birthday rolled around to acquire an addition to our collection.  However, I knew quite well that a well-timed letter to my spinster Aunt Iris in Florida would likely result in a postal package containing a board game arriving on our doorstep several weeks hence.  This was a bit like rolling the dice or twirling the spinner, as we did not always receive the game we had requested.  We eventually learned to accept this with a sense of humor, taking the opportunity to read the instructions and learn the rules of a game we had never heard of.

Of all the board games in the toy box, our hands down favorite was Monopoly.  Actually, this was one of the two games that wasn’t stored in the toy box (the other being Scrabble).  That’s because those games were property of my parents and permission had to be asked to drag them out of storage.

Our toy box was a dark wood crate with holes on either side for carrying that may have once served as a foot locker or hope chest.  As the years went by and the toy box was accessed with less frequency, this large, heavy object was exiled to the great outdoors, sitting under the overhang on the raised deck, two steps from the kitchen door.  In time, wasps and hornets found their way into the hole handles, making their nests within.  Exposure to the elements also caused the toy box to begin to rot, and in our teen years the entire thing had to be discarded, contents and all.

My mother’s Monopoly set was one of the originals issued by Parker Brothers during the Great Depression.  I wonder what it was like playing with that set in my grandparents’ one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.  Mom’s sister was eight years older than she, so I imagine that by the time Mom was old enough to appreciate the game, my aunt was probably too occupied with high school and parties and boys to have had much interest in playing the game with her little sister.  My grandparents were always working, so I doubt that they had much time to play the game with her.

My first recollection of playing Monopoly was at the age of four or five, when I was sick in bed in our New York City apartment and, in the evening, my parents would come into the bedroom that I shared with my little sisters and spread out the board on top of the covers.  I didn’t fully understand the rules of the game, but I was fascinated by the strange street names, the colors of the different denominations of money and, most of all, the game pieces.  I would laugh and laugh at the thimble, the flatiron, the wheelbarrow and the top hat.  The green houses and the red hotels were made of real wood and the board was of heavy cloth material.

By the time I first played with Mom’s set, it had already been in the family for more than a quarter of a century.  We moved to suburbia when I was six years old, and the game took up residence in the lower center drawer of the dining room hutch.  This huge piece of furniture had a top part and a bottom part.  The bottom part consisted of two wide wooden drawers, one above the other, and two smaller drawers on the sides.  Above was the glass breakfront that proudly displayed Mom’s china and fancy “company” glassware.  There was a small space underneath the hutch, between the legs, just tall enough to slide in the wooden case containing Mom’s silver.  In a recent phone conversation with my mother, the two of us reminisced about the hutch, which over the course of thirty years began to buckle under the weight of the breakfront.  It was eventually donated to charity when my parents sold their house and moved to California twenty years ago.  I reminded my mother how, when the dining room curtains were open, the sunlight of the southern exposure would reflect off the glass doors of the breakfront and illuminate her good dishes.  I could feel her smiling through the phone as widely as I was.

When my sisters and I asked my parents for permission to drag Mom’s Monopoly set out of the hutch, they never said no.  Occasionally we would play at the dining room table, but more often than not, we spread out the set on the living room floor, the three of us sprawled out on the carpet with all of the game’s paraphernalia.

Well, not all of it.  We played with what was left after all those years.  By then, the board had been folded and unfolded so many times that it was in two pieces that we pushed together.  Some of the deeds were missing; we filled in the gaps by making our own out of sheets of my parents’ good typing paper, drawing our best efforts at facsimiles thereof, cutting them out with blunt scissors and using a crayon to create the approximate property color.  We figured we were probably missing some of the money, too; we didn’t really know or care.  When we ran out of a particular denomination, we would ask my father what to do.  The answer was always the same:  Make some more.  Which we gleefully did.

We were missing some of the tokens, too, but that never bothered us a bit.  There were still more than enough tokens for the three of us to pick one, and we delighted in moving them round and round the board.  We still had the dice, while the salmon pink Chance cards and the canary yellow Community Chest cards were more or less intact, so what could be wrong?

At best, our games took hours to play.  Often, they took days.  When bedtime came, we would simply leave the game where it was on the living room floor, particularly if it were a Saturday or during summer vacation.  The next morning, we’d wake up as early as possible and advance upon the living room, still in our pajamas.  We’d try to remember whose turn it was and we’d pick up right where we had left off the night before.  I recall several times when a game of Monopoly took the entire day, as well as other games that had to be aborted because there were places to go, things to do, meals to be eaten.  We would inevitably groan with disappointment; what could be more important than Monopoly?

Like just about everything else, as the years went by, Monopoly joined the electronic era.  It was the first game pack I purchased for my Game Boy in the early 1990s, and now, thanks to Electronic Arts, I play against artificial intelligence opponents on my iPhone.

I still smile when I see the stacked boxes of Monopoly sets on the shelf at our local Rite-Aid, and I think that perhaps some parent, coming in for medication for their sick child, will notice the game and pick one up to spread out on the covers and play for hours and hours, like my parents did with me so long ago in the Bronx.

Over the years, I have purchased modern Monopoly sets on several occasions on both coasts of the United States.   And although I still feel a thrill when I unpeel the shrink wrap and crack open that board for the first time, it can’t begin to compare to my mother’s old cloth Monopoly set from the 1930s.