I haven’t played against Margaret yet, and I want to.
Not Maggie, not Margie, not Peggy. Margaret.
Goodness, Margaret is such an old lady name. It reminds me of the secretary in the main office of the high school where my father taught driver education for 30 years, or Dennis the Menace’s girlfriend. Or Horowitz-Margareten, the brand name on the bright blue label of the huge boxes of matzos that my parents and grandparents purchased at Passover time in the days of my childhood in New York City.
She instantly recognized me and came over to say hi while she was looking for her assigned table on the first day of the North American Scrabble Championship here in Reno.
“We’ve played together before,” she announced. “I don’t remember where, but it was a long time ago.”
We stared at each other for about three seconds.
“Phoenix!” we shouted at approximately the same time. When my sisters and I were kids, such an occasion would have called for both of us to yell “Jinx!”
I would hazard a guess that Margaret is in her early eighties. She lives in Los Angeles and travels the west coast Scrabble tournament circuit, just as I attempt to do whenever finances allow. Las Vegas, Reno, Silicon Valley, Portland.
I have competed in the big February tournament in Arizona on two occasions. The first time, I drove down from Fresno with a friend (my wife had to work) and was sick with bronchitis the whole time I was there. A couple of years later, we found ourselves living in the desert just a couple of hours away from Phoenix and I was able to go with my wife. It’s always an excellent tournament, heavily attended by snowbirds from Canada and the northern states, seeking an excuse to escape the winter weather and enjoy a week or so in the sun.
So it must have been about seven years ago when last I played across the board from Margaret. I’m amazed that she remembers me, but then again, we Scrabble nerds need to have skills in that area in order to memorize all those lists of words.
I ran into Margaret again this morning as I was lugging my rolling Scrabble bag through the casino, my lunch bag attached by a strap. I’m just glad that thing has a solid handle by which I can pull it behind me, because it weighs more than 20 pounds, thanks to my heavy wooden Scrabble board.
I was headed across the street to the playing venue and I had nearly made it out the doors of the casino when she greeted me. At least 20 minutes remained until the director would make the announcements that precede each day of tournament play. Margaret had plenty of time. She sat down at a nickel slot machine and began playing. I wished her luck and headed out into the early morning sunshine.
The reason that I have yet to be paired with Margaret during this tournament likely has something to do with the fact that it is well-attended: We have more competitors in my division that there are games. In other words, there are some people in each division whom you will not get to play against. Margaret is seeded 33rd and I am seeded sixth, so that may be a factor as well.
Instead, I have been paired against a lot of young whippersnappers who play with me in the bottom division only by dint of the fact that this is their first or second tournament and they haven’t established much of a formal rating yet. This is the next generation, the up and coming Division 1 players of the next few years. Meanwhile, I get to suffer against their superior Scrabble prowess and their young, agile Scrabble memories. In my last game today, I was completely blown out of the water by a young man who had just graduated from middle school. He told me he is 13 years old, lives in Connecticut and is here in Reno with his entire family “because I wouldn’t have been able to get here otherwise.”
Okay, so I’m old. I think we moldy oldies need to stick together. We need to have our own division and let the youngsters duke it out among themselves. We don’t stand a shadow of a chance against them.
And there are a lot of us. I have played tournament games against opponents more than 90 years of age, some of whom have beaten me soundly. I have sat across the board from seniors using magnifying glasses and special lamps due to visual impairments, who get extra time on the clock due to arthritis that is so bad that they can barely pick up the tiles, who show up in wheelchairs and connected to oxygen tanks. Scrabble is a game we can play at any age, continuing to show off our word knowledge and mental skills long after our bodies have betrayed us.
This morning I was paired against John, whom I met at the very first Scrabble tournament I ever attended, in Silicon Valley’s Los Gatos. It was a short one-afternoon event, and John was directing. It was held at a ratty pizza joint, and I had no idea where I was supposed to sit or what I supposed to do. I still had to learn the tournament etiquette. But John was unfazed and showed me much kindness, gently explaining about the pairings, ratings and assorted tournament paraphernalia. I reminded him of this today, making it a point to let him know that his kindness had much to do with the fact that I was not scared away and have been playing in Scrabble tournaments ever since. He told me that he remembers that day.
That was the last tournament that John directed. I remember that he told me he was retiring to Florida that very week. That was at least eight years ago, and John has been living in a small town in the Tampa Bay area ever since. His elderly mother was already there, and he shared with me today that he had 22 months with her before she passed away. He had been laid off from work and decided it would be better to retire to a cheaper area than to be a poor, unemployed job hunter in the mean Silicon Valley job market. Technology companies routinely recruit at colleges for new, young blood. The tech industry has no use for oldies like us.
Meanwhile, it turns out that John hates Florida. Not only does he find the heat and humidity oppressive, but he misses the intellectual stimulation of Silicon Valley and he can’t find any worthy Scrabble opponents around. To my surprise, he tells me that the stereotypes about Florida retirees only being interested in shuffleboard and endless games of cards is accurate.
I’m guessing that John is not quite 70 years old, but he says that the seniors living in his area only want to pay three- and four-handed Scrabble, don’t really keep score, and prefer to spend more time chatting than playing. It’s all about the socializing, and it doesn’t really matter whether very many words actually make it off the rack and onto the board. As a very competitive player, this frustrates John to no end. He finished me off handily this morning.
I’ll say it again: We oldies have to form our own league or something. It’s too bad that we live all over this wide country of ours, in Los Angeles and Florida, in Sacramento and Texas and New York. Perhaps we can start a club online, like the email tournament in which I have been participating for more than a decade. I doubt that it’ll ever happen, but it’s a pleasant thought. I may have a chance of someday improving to John’s level, but I know I’ll never be able to get anywhere near what these young folks are doing. Surely there has to be a unique place for us in the world of competitive Scrabble.
Margaret finished playing her slot machine and ambled across Virginia Street and the wide plaza to the Reno Ballroom, where our tournament is taking place. She waved as she walked by.
Tournament Update: After a great morning in which I had three big wins, I had a disappointing afternoon in which I won a game by 2 points (in a recount, no less), lost the next one by 3 points due to a truly stupid mistake, and then got squashed like a bug by a young’un. My best play of the tournament is pictured above. After laying down GRIEVE one spot from the triple line (hoping my opponent didn’t have a D, R or S), I drew both the Q and the U simultaneously and was shocked to find that I could play QUAILED for 122 points! As if that weren’t enough, my opponent wasn’t familiar with the word and challenged the play, giving me an extra turn. I followed this up with another bingo, STHENIA, a word I know only from my study of bingo stem lists. If only every game could be like this one!