To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically

Welcome to the world of competitive scrabble.

My third tournament started with a brutal game where I lost by more than two hundred points. I was the fifth seed and feeling confident—too confident, really. We Are The Champions may have been on an infinite loop in my head. And yet. It was also early on a Saturday morning. I am not a morning person. Before the tournament started, people milled around the hotel meeting room chatting idly about the heat, what we had done since the last time many of us had seen each other (the previous tournament in Illinois), and some of the more amazing plays we had made recently.

Scrabble1 players love to talk, at length, with some repetition, about their vocabulary triumphs.

There were twenty-one of us with various levels of ability but really, if you’re playing this game at the competitive level, you generally have some skill and can be a contender. The more experienced players, the Dragos to my Rocky, studied word lists and appeared intensely focused on something the rest of us couldn’t see. Many wore fanny packs without irony—serious fanny packs bulging with mystery. As I waited for the tournament to begin, I studied the table of game-related accessories—books, a travel set, a towel, a deluxe board, and some milled French soaps clearly taken from someone’s closet—all for drawings to be held later in the day2.

At nine o’clock, sharp, the tournament director3, Tom, began making announcements, one of which was that his wife had died just days earlier. The tournament was going to go on, he said. It was an awkward, touching moment because grief is so personal and this man was clearly grieving. The room was silent. It was difficult to know what to do. He announced that the first pairings would be posted in a few minutes so we waited, quietly until the pairings were posted around the room. Everyone hovered around the sheet of paper, quickly writing down the names of their first two opponents. I sat across from my first challenger. She was seeded nineteenth. My confidence swelled vulgarly. She stared at me, smug, almost imperious. I felt an uncomfortable chill. We determined she would go first. She drew her seven tiles. I started her time and fixed her with a hard stare as she began shuffling the seven plastic squares back and forth across her rack. I began drawing my tiles. Beneath the table, my legs were shaking.

This is competitive Scrabble4.

 

You have to understand. I was lonely in a new town where I knew no one. I wanted to be back home, with my boyfriend, in our apartment, complaining about how Sportscenter seems to air perpetually or listening to him nag me about my imaginary Internet friends. My apartment was empty, no furniture, because I left my sad graduate student furniture behind. After work, I’d sit on my lone chair, a step above sad, purchased at SofaMart, wondering how my life had come to this.

When my new colleague invited me to her home to play with her Scrabble club5, I was so desperate I would have agreed to just about anything—cleaning her bathrooms, watching the grass grow in her backyard, something smarmy and vaguely illegal involving suburban prostitution, whatever.

I didn’t quite know what a Scrabble club was but I assumed it was a group of people enjoying friendly games of Scrabble on a Saturday afternoon. I told my mother I was going to play Scrabble and she laughed, called me a geek, her accent wrapping around the word strangely. I was roundly mocked by my brothers who were always the popular kids while I was the shunned nerd, a fact they gleefully reminded me of as they made a series of increasingly absurd Scrabble-related jokes, like, “You sure are going through a DRY SPELL.” The man I left behind said, “Come home. You’re freaking me out.” I ignored them all.

My colleague, Daiva, and her husband Marty live in a large home in a wooded neighborhood on the very edge of our very small town. Everything is modern and unique and interesting to look at—slick leather chairs, pottery, African art. In their finished basement, there is enough space for ten to twenty people, sometimes more, to get together once a month to play Scrabble all day.

Marty6 is a nationally ranked player, top fifteen. He knows every word ever invented as well as each word’s meaning. If you give him a seven-letter combination, he’ll tell you all the possible anagrams. I would not be surprised to learn he thinks in anagrams. There are thirty-nine possible Scrabble words in anagram.7

When you are new to the club, Marty carefully explains the rules of competitive Scrabble, and rules, there are many. You have to keep score. When you have completed your turn, you have to press a button on a game timer. You have to monitor time because there are penalties if you exceed twenty-five total minutes for your plays. There’s a proper etiquette for drawing tiles (tile bag held above your eyes, head turned away).8 There’s a procedure if you draw too many tiles. There’s a protocol for challenging if you believe your opponent has played a phony, a word that isn’t in the Official Tournament and Club Word List.9

As Marty told me all these rules that first day, I laughed and rolled my eyes like an asshole and struggled to take any of it seriously. Until that day, my Scrabble playing had mostly involved drinking, friends, crazy made up words, haphazard score keeping, and never ever any time constraints. It was an innocent time.

People slowly filed in with large round cases. One woman’s case was wheeled, like a suitcase. They set their cases on tables and pulled out custom turntable scrabble boards, timers, tile bags, and racks. They got out their scoring sheets and personal tokens. The games started and the room hushed. I realized this was no time to crack jokes. I realized Scrabble is very serious business.

 

I have a Scrabble nemesis. His name is Henry10. He has the most gorgeous blue gray eyes I have ever seen. The beauty of his perfect eyes only makes me hate him more. He has been known to wear a fanny pack and often scowls. Nemeses aren’t born. They are made.

Shortly after I started playing with my local Scrabble club, Marty told me about a charity tournament he holds in Danville, said it would be a great experience for me to play. I had nothing to lose so I agreed. I had no idea what to expect as I walked into the main building of the community college in Danville. After I registered, I stood awkwardly, wondering what to do until my club friends took mercy on me and showed me the lay of tournament land.

Serious Scrabble people study words and remember matches from eight years ago where they played a word for 173 points. They remember when they didn’t challenge a phony and lost the match. They remember everything. Some serious Scrabble players are poor losers. I am a good loser. I am proud of this. I love Scrabble so much I don’t care if I lose. I also have to be a good loser because I lose a lot so practicality plays a role. Unlike most serious Scrabble players, I don’t have the patience to study all the possible three and four-letter words, for example, but still, I am extremely competitive11. It’s an awkward combination.

I began the tournament thinking, “I am going to win this tournament.” I approach most things in life with a dangerous level of confidence to balance my generally low self-esteem. This helps me as a writer. Each time I submit a story to fancy magazines like, say, The New Yorker or The Paris Review, I think, “This story is totally going to get published.”

My heart gets broken more than it should.

I registered and got all my paperwork and such and looked around at the other word nerds. I felt like people were checking me out. I was prepared to reenact the beginning of Beat It when everyone is silently stalking each other trying to size up the competition. There were 32 players, four groups (based on ranking) with 8 players in each. We would play seven rounds to determine the one Scrabble player to rule them all. The tournament director read off the names of each person in each group along with their seed. He read my name last and I understood my place. I was the lowest ranked (worst player) in the room.12 I was the last kid who would be picked for dodgeball.

I sat down for my first round with the top seed in my division and she was pretty cocky. I was too or I was trying to project cockiness and calm. My hands were shaking under the table I was so nervous. My primary ambition was to not humiliate myself, make any missteps where Scrabble etiquette is concerned,13 or shame the members of my Scrabble Club, several of whom were in attendance.

My opponent looked up and said, “I was in the next highest division yesterday.” The gauntlet was thrown. She said it with a kind, warm smile but she was trying to intimidate me. I could tell by the way her upper lip curled. It worked. Well played. I wondered if I could purchase adult diapers at the nearest gas station.

The tournament started and I managed to spell my words and use the timer correctly. I got into a rhythm. I placed a bingo.14 I was feeling good. My skin flushed warmly with early success. I started thinking I had a chance. Then Number One Seed proceeded to wipe the board with my ass; the final score was 366-277. I smiled and shook her hand but a small piece of my soul was destroyed. I thought, “Je suis désoleé.”

When I composed myself, I took stock of what happened. I played decently and had two bingos overall. There was simply nothing I could do. I kept drawing terribly (JVK) and getting outplayed and she was so damn confident the entire time. Worse yet, Number One Seed played me better than she played the game.15 At the beginning of the match, she asked if I was a student.16 I said, “No, I teach writing,” and she said, “Oh I’m in trouble,” pretending to be the weaker prey. Here’s the thing. I play poker. I know a bluff when I see one. Once she got going, she kept smirking, letting me know her foot was leaving an ugly mark on my neck.

I was determined to win my second match because I am that competitive and I have pride and winning feels way better than losing. My opponent was really quiet and taciturn. It was not fun playing her. I slaughtered her 403-229 and I wanted to scream I was so happy. I was very tempted to jump on the table and shout, “IN YOUR FACE.” For the sake of sportsmanship, I remained quiet and polite and thanked her for the game. She coldly walked away without so much as a by your leave. As I drove home, I did gloat. I gloated a lot.

The third match was with a woman I play regularly. She’s really nice and we get along well. She always beats me and that day would be no exception—score: 390-327. My ambitious, delusional goal of winning the tournament was faltering. There were four matches left after the break so before resuming play, we had lunch and I ate a vegetable sandwich. I told Daiva, the woman who had introduced me to the craziness of competitive Scrabble, “I’m going to win this tournament.” She gave me the saddest look, as if to say, “there, there, crazy little Scrabble baby.”

There’s something to be said for the delusion of confidence. I won my next four matches (389-312; 424-244; 352-312; 396-366). I was a demon. I had my word mojo. I was seeing bingos everywhere and making smart, tight plays, blocking triple play lanes and tracking perfectly.17 With each win, I felt increasingly invincible. I wanted to beat my chest. I was also trying to distract myself.

In the middle of the night, hours before the tournament began, I received a frantic call from my mother, the kind of call, as your parents get older, you hope to never receive. My normally healthy father had to be rushed to the hospital—chest pains and shortness of breath. My first instinct was to say, I am coming home but fortunately, my youngest brother lives nearby and was able to be there. Throughout the tournament, I was getting updates on my father’s condition, trying to reassure my mother that everything would be fine.18 I was trying not to lose my shit19 completely. There are 227 possible Scrabble words in completely.

In my last match of the day, it became clear the winner of our match would win the entire tournament for our division. This is how my nemesis was born.

Henry with the beautiful, piercing blue gray eyes, was sly like a fox. At the start of the match, he kept playing two-letter words so I did the same. We were stalking each other around a cage. You know the naked fight scene in Eastern Promises? It was like that only we weren’t criminals, naked, or in a Turkish bath and I was the only one with a number of visible tattoos. He wore a t-shirt that read, “World’s Best Scrabble Player.” It was the t-shirt that made me extra motivated to win. The level of competition was very strong and as the game unfolded, my excitement grew.

As the second seed, Henry The Nemesis was confident he would defeat me. I could smell the confidence on him. He reeked of it. I played three bingos during the course of the match. He tried to play TREKING20 for 81 points but I knew that was not a word. TREKKING takes two “K”s. I challenged. He rolled his eyes like he couldn’t believe I had the nerve to challenge his bad spelling. My hands shook as I typed his word into the computer. I won the challenge. By the end of the match, he was irate and I was giddy. When I won, he realized he wasn’t going to win the tournament and had fallen to third place. Because I was seeded so low, his ranking was going to take a hit. He refused to shake my hand and stalked off angrily. I thought he was going to throw the table over. Male anger makes me intensely uncomfortable so I tried to sit very still and hoped the uncomfortable moment would pass quickly. Henry’s bad sportsmanship did not temper my mood for long. I won my first tournament despite being the lowest seeded21 player in the field and took home a small cash prize. The size of my ego for the following week was difficult to measure. It would not last though. What Scrabble giveth, another player, at another tournament, will taketh away.

 

When you succeed early at an endeavor, you convince yourself you will easily replicate that success. Ask child actors.22 Three months later, I played in another tournament, the Arden Cup, a 20-match, two and a half day affair where I won eight games and lost twelve. I learned a lot. I especially learned that it is insane to believe you will walk into a competitive tournament, among a much larger field, with a fragile and inflated ranking, and somehow win that tournament.

Henry The Nemesis was in attendance as were a host of equally intriguing and intense players who would get under my skin nearly as much as Henry does. My least favorite player was Donnie23 who tried to mansplain Scrabble because he didn’t recognize me24 and took me for a neophyte. As we sat down to start our match, he said, “Now, you just play this the same way you play Scrabble at home.” I made it my life’s purpose, right then, to destroy him. Another opponent asked if we should play at his board or mine. When I told him I didn’t have my own set, he gave me a pitying look.25 I quickly realized I was swimming with Scrabble sharks. I was the blood in the water.

There was one redemptive moment despite the humiliation of that tournament, one where I lost so many times the matches blended into a depressing blur, where I lost mostly to mansplainers who defined words26 even though I did not ask for definitions, regaled me with tales of their sordid Scrabble histories, and otherwise drove me crazy. I beat Henry The Nemesis again. We played twice during the tournament—he won a game and I won a game. At the end of our second game, the one I won, he stood and pointed at me. He said, “You’ve won two out of three times. Two. Out. Of. Three.” I looked down, bit my lower lip to keep from smiling my face off.

“I wasn’t keeping track,”27 I said.

I excused myself and ran to the restroom, where in the privacy of my stall, I whispered, I beat you, I beat you, I beat you. There was fist pumping.

 

And so. My third tournament started brutally and the brutality was unrelenting. I ended up winning six matches (one was a buy) and losing six and took 15th place. My friends told me that was a good outcome. I’m pretty sure they were just being nice given the increased fragility of my Scrabble ego.

I did not get to play my nemesis but he was there and he performed well. I took that personally.

A new nemesis was also made early during that tournament. In my first match of the day, I was tired. I had only slept for three hours after a late night in the city with friends. I am not a morning person. I did not have time to find the nearest Starbucks. I could not find any dollar bills to buy a Diet Pepsi. I could not find my Visine. I was hungover, gin, which doesn’t settle well with me the day after. My stomach kept turning uncomfortably. I was drowsy. If I closed my eyes, I would simply fall into an uncomfortable sleep. I was a mess.

I was the 5th seed in a field of 21 so I was stupidly pleased with myself to still be seeded so high after the previous tournament. My opponent was unseeded and had no ranking so I mistakenly assumed she was a novice player.28 From the outset I was certain I would win the match handily even though I was hungover and barely able to cope with the dryness of my eyeballs.

Toward the end of the match, I played BROASTED and BO for a triple word score. My opponent challenged and she won. When you challenge two words, though, the computer only tells you if the word combination is good or bad. If the combination is bad, it will not tell you if one or all of the words in the combination are bad. I thought, because I was mentally incapacitated, that BO must not be a valid word. I may not know my three-letter words but I do know my two-letter words. I was confused. I was not at my best.

A couple moves later, I played BROASTED and BA in the same location. My opponent’s eyes widened. She stared at me like I was the stupidest person alive. In that moment, I hated every last cell in her body.

“You’re going to do that again?” she asked, but it wasn’t quite a question.

It was her tone that totally set me off. I had just laid down the titles thereby making it crystal clear I was going to make the same, ridiculous, amateurish mistake twice. What did she fail to understand?

In my defense, I was so convinced BROASTED29 was a word, because it actually is a word, that I remained unwavering in my commitment to play the word. Had I succeeded, I would have earned 87 points. As we walked to the challenge computer, I could feel her laughing at me. I wanted to cry but my eyes were still so terribly dry and also, there is no crying at a Scrabble tournament unless you’re in the bathroom and you have carefully checked all the stalls to make sure you are alone.

The next time I see New Nemesis, I must explain, “I am not the idiot you think I am or at least, I am not an idiot for the reasons you think.”

The match was a massacre. The final score—500-263. That match set the tone for the tournament. Time and again, lower ranked players taught me painful lessons. Time and again, I was humbled. At the end of the tournament, after the prizes were handed out and we applauded each of the winners, and the players who had played the highest scoring words, we losers stood in small clumps of failure bemoaning how terribly we played while those who played well tried not to gloat. Their modesty was good-naturedly false. We packed up our boards and the excitement of the tournament slowly seeped out of our muscles. We shook hands and bid each other goodbye, until the next club meeting or tournament. We were no longer adversaries.

This essay originally appeared in Ninth Letter.

Photo: martinak15

1In all seriousness, Scrabble was invented by a man named Alfred Mosher Butts.
2Scrabble tournaments are a lot like soccer tournaments for four-year olds in that, often times, everyone goes home with a little something.
3Officially rated tournaments are run by NASPA approved tournament directors. NASPA is the North American Scrabble Players Association. Tournament directors are generally encyclopedic in their knowledge of Scrabble and can easily clarify any confusion about the rules or negotiate disputes that arise during a tournament. Disputes, they arise.
4This is how serious competitive Scrabble is—there is a national championship, held annually during the summer. The first national tournament was held in 1978. There are also World competitions (the first world championship was held in 1991), a cottage industry of Scrabble-related merchandise, game timers, boards, tiles, etc., books, documentaries, and academic articles on the nuances of competitive Scrabble. There are Scrabble-related apps for your iDevices (I use Zarf, Checkword, the official Scrabble game, Lexulous, and Words With Friends). There are Scrabble games on Facebook (I play the official HASBRO game and Lexulous). Elsewhere online, there’s the Internet Scrabble Club (ISC), where I also play. There is a website, cross-tables.com, dedicated to tracking all the official tournaments in the country with scores and rankings. I am ranked 1,651st in the country. I’m guessing that’s out of 1800 players given my lowliness.
5There are more than 200 Scrabble clubs in the United States. The club in my town meets monthly while the club in Champaign, IL, meets weekly. In bigger cities, some clubs will even meet twice a week.
6He is my Scrabble sensei. I almost beat him once where almost is not so much. Early in the match I played TRIPLEX for around 90 points. Then I played another bingo. I was way ahead and deluded myself into thinking I was on Easy Street. The sweetness of my imagined victory was nearly unbearable. Marty would go on to play ENTOZOAN across two Triple Word Score spaces for 203 points. He was Sub Zero in Mortal Kombat tearing out my Scrabble spine with his bare hands—FATALITY. We have not played since. I have been properly humbled.
7I love anagrams. When I was a kid, my mom would write big words on lined paper and ask me to find all the possible words. Now, finding words is kind of my super power.
8In the seventh round of the 2011 World Scrabble Championships, Edward Martin, while playing Chollapat Itthi-Are, realized a tile was missing. The tournament director came up with a reasonable solution, but Chollapat demanded Martin prove he wasn’t hiding the missing tile on his person. Play resumed and Martin eventually won by a single point. My friend/sensei Marty was totally sitting right next to these guys when this went down. He said, “It was a distraction.”
9There are multiple official word lists. In North America, most Scrabble players use the Official Tournament and Club Word List (OWL). Outside of North America, players use the Collins English Dictionary. At some tournaments here in the U.S., you will find smaller Collins divisions for those Scrabble players who want to test their skills using the Collins dictionary. The challenge is remembering which words are acceptable for Collins, and then remembering which words are acceptable for OWL when returning to traditional play.
10Henry is not his name.
11I have always enjoyed board games. I love rolling dice and moving small plastic or metal pieces around game boards. I collect Monopoly sets from around the world. I will play any game so long as there is a possibility I can win. I take games seriously. Sometimes I take them too seriously and conflate winning the game of Life with winning at life.
12Scrabble people are really quite friendly and gracious but to be clear, they are also intense and serious as hell. I have an imagination. In my head, as we prepared to word rumble, I felt as if we were about to throw down like in the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” A lot of my life can be described in terms of Michael Jackson’s music. I’d explain the significance of “Man in the Mirror,” but then you’d think I was crazy.
13Players can be very… particular about how you comport yourself during a Scrabble game. Some players want complete silence during matches so won’t appreciate your idle chatter. Some players think you’re cheating if you play with your phone. Don’t take a call should your phone ring, that’s for sure. I once got a dirty look for tapping on my phone without muting it. Apparently, the gentle beeps were simply too much for that player. The longer you play, the more you finely hone these particularities. I, for example, have developed several Scrabble-related pet peeves and preferences. I have strong opinions on the type of scoring sheets I use and the kind of pens I use to keep score (Uniball .5mm rollerball). I now have a very low tolerance for players who draw their tiles in annoying ways. I am particularly aggravated by players who do a lot of mixing the tiles up before each draw. IT DOES NOT CHANGE THE OUTCOME. I also do not look kindly upon players who tap the tiles on the board as they tally their points. Why are they doing that? What really sets me over the edge, though, is when players will recount my word scores after I’ve announced my score at the end of a turn as if I am incapable of simple math. Certainly, math is not my strong suit, but in general, I have addition under control. When this unnecessary score verification occurs, I sometimes have to sit on my hands to keep from punching a player in the face.
14A bingo is when you play all seven letters on your rack. This is one of the most coveted Scrabble plays. I am a bingo player. I have no time to learn all the three-letter words and random obscure words so I spend most of my time going for bingos because in addition to the points you earn from the board, you also earn a fifty-point bonus. There are twenty-three possible Scrabble words in bingo.
15Don’t get it twisted. Competitive Scrabble is both word chess and word poker. You need a game face and you need to wear that game face hard.
16I choose to believe she asked this because I look so fresh and youthful.
17Much like in poker where you try to make an educated guess as to the cards your opponent is holding, great Scrabble players will track the letters played throughout a game. By the end of the game, you should know exactly what your opponent has on their rack. It is also important to track because it allows you to make smarter strategic decisions. It’s good to know if high value letters (J, X, Q, K, V, etc) are in play because if there are few letters left and you’re holding on to a U or an I and you know the Q is still in the bag, you want to be smart about where you play those vowels so your opponent cannot build a word with their Q unless they have the necessary vowels in their own rack.
18Everything turned out fine.
19Shit is a valid Scrabble word.
20There are no bingos with the letters T R E K I N G. If Henry studied, he would know that.
21I ended up with an amazing ranking, high enough to almost place me a division up. In the next tournament I played, I would be seeded much higher and I would pay for that, dearly.
22The child actors from Different Strokes, among others, know a little something about this. I was thinking I would pull a Mary Kate and Ashley. Such was not the case.
23Also not his name.
24The Scrabble community is fairly small and once you start attending tournaments regularly, you will see the same people over and over.
25I have my own tournament board now as well as a timer (with pink buttons), tiles (pink), and long tile racks (sadly not available in pink). I also have a carrying case with a shoulder strap so I can rock my Scrabble board slug across my shoulders like a boss.
26Qoph is a Hebrew letter. My opponent not only shared the word’s meaning, he also explained the origins (something about a sewing needle; frankly, I had tuned him out at that point) and pronunciation. After the exciting word lesson, he started telling me all the possible Q words one can spell without a “u.” I wondered, “Is there a “q” in motherfucker?”
27That was a pretty little lie.
28I willfully ignored the memory of the outcome of my first tournament where I won as the lowest seeded player, without a ranking.
29Broasting is a proper noun and proper nouns are not valid Scrabble words. Broasting is a trademarked method of cooking chicken.