I recently read the book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, in which the author delves into the world of competitive Scrabble. Instead of simply talking to the people in this world, he immersed himself in it, playing the game, competing in the tournaments, learning the lingo, becoming one with the entire culture of Scrabble.
It’s a fascinating look at a subculture, especially since it’s one with no obvious rewards. There’s very little financial gain involved in being even one of the tippy-top players. Certainly no fame is involved. In such a case the only obvious answer is “the love of the game” though even that seems iffy for some of these people.
I, of course, am in no position to judge. Being into comic books, role-playing games, board games, Lego, Star Wars, and Doctor Who, I know all too well that the heart wants what it wants and we all have something or other that can’t be explained to those who don’t share the interest.
I’ve always enjoyed Scrabble, even though pretty much only my Dad will play with me. Becky’s the English PhD, sure, but her specialty is Ye Olde English. In fact, one time, when playing Boggle with Amy and Nigel, she made the word “HIE”. Nigel challenged, to which she responded, “You know, as in ‘Hie thee hither!'” To which Nigel said, “It doesn’t count if the only sentence you can use it in contains only archaic words!” In addition, I’ve done a fair amount of crossword puzzles in my day, so I’ve gotten a lot of weird wordage from those as well.
The effect of reading Word Freak was interesting because it somehow made me want to play Scrabble (and get one of those nifty deluxe sets with the rotating board) and also never play Scrabble again. The attraction to playing was obvious, but the repulsion was also obvious: there’s only one way to get good at Scrabble, and that’s to memorize huge lists of words, something I have no intention of doing.
However, that in itself was strange to me, because although I have played games all my life, I’ve never really been competitive. It’s seldom really mattered to me whether or not I win whatever game I’m currently playing. I know there’s people out there who don’t understand this, who see no point in not playing to win, if they even acknowledge that it’s possible to do so. I play games for enjoyment in and of themselves. This weekend Dan and I went over to Mike’s and played a cool Viking game whose name I don’t remember. And yeah, I mean, I was doing the best job I knew how to in the game, but the outcome didn’t really concern me one way or another. Back when I played Magic regularly I was usually more interested in getting cool combos to work or trying to figure out weird cards than I was in actually winning, though I won my fair share. Whenever I played against Chris, even though he usually won, it was enjoyable because he’d so often be handing my ass to me in interesting ways.
A few times when I did enter Magic tournaments (small, local ones) things were decidedly not fun. In one tournament I won, the preparation was grueling as Chris, Brady, and I made deck after deck designed only to pummel the opponent into submission. Not subtle, not interesting, just crushing. And not fun.
My lack of competitiveness is what (other than money) keeps me away from online computer games. I’m just not as interested in continually losing to people who are far more motivated to deliver punishing, humiliating defeat. I don’t like playing against strangers who, it seems, always seem to care more about the outcome than I do.
So to get back to Scrabble, why then did it bother me that I’d likely never be “competitive” in it? Where did this sudden desire to do so come from? I’ve always played Scrabble as a rank amateur and enjoyed it as such. Why should it bother me to know there are heights to which I will certainly never scale? I don’t know.
In the meantime I found out I had a computer Scrabble game CD-ROM, courtesy of Cheerios, and I’ve loaded it up. It’s provided a more than adequate Scrabble fix, and even includes little mini-games to help find some of those crazy-ass words the pros use. For example, I can now tell you that in this set of tiles:
there are the following legal two-letter words: AD, AE, AH, DO, ED, EH, EL, HA, HE, HO, LA, LO, OE, OH, OY, YE, and YO. There’s probably more, but I know of those for sure. No idea what some of them mean, but you can get points for them in Scrabble.
So how ’bout a game, Becky? I’ll spot you 50 points…