The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 18, 2007


After a hiatus of almost five years, the wife and I played Scrabble last weekend. We were both somewhat rustier than ever, and it took a little while to get the grey cells operational. By then, the Scrabble board was dense in the top quadrant and empty everywhere else. The quality of the words was none too impressive. You know, stuff like REX and FAIN and AXLED. Without adequate rack and board management, any game will quickly stultify and suffocate. In search of cheap points, complaining about the immoderate number of vowels on our racks, we unbalanced the board. Seeking to deny each other double- and triple-word scores, we placed innocuous words at the most inopportune squares. In essence, the game was grinding to a desperate shuffle of two- and three-letter words.

At that point, I placed CRINGED, got my fifty points and a bit, and the wife winced and we stopped the game. She later admitted that she had allowed me to win, in the interests of marital harmony. What can I say? She is a sweetie.

I've played Scrabble off and on for almost thirty years. When my parents and sister and I played, invariably my dad would thrash us. Boy, did this gall me! I vowed to beat him eventually and set about the task with single-minded devotion. In other words, I did nothing about it. Well, I read a lot of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy (I was twelve and my dad told me to read these dinosaurs, instead of, I don't know, Alistair MacLean). I learnt a few grandiloquent words, sure, and continued to get beaten by the old man. Still, I never became quite the fanatical word-freak that Stefan Fatsis describes so eloquently in his marvellous Word Freak, a tale of obsession and heartbreak among champion Scrabble players. For me, the thrill came from playing words I knew the meanings of. Winning was essential, of course, but I never felt the need to memorise all the recognised two- and three-letter words, or build up word-lists, or develop a blinding ability to anagram - all traits and abilities pushed to the limits by the foremost Scrabblists of the world.

I'm not sure I'd enjoy playing the game with the obsessives. They'd beat me hollow, of course. But they show no interest in the words they place. Their imagination extends only to fast anagramming and clever placement and deciding when to rotate the rack and so on. These are all good skills to have even for a part-time gamer. But the main reason the game has such a hold on me is my love for language. I'm fascinated by the cleverness of my opponents as they finagle interesting words onto the board. I'm always prepared to ask for the meaning of a word I've not encountered before - and not as an adversarial challenge, either. When we get to the endgame where one seeks nooks to insert the smaller words, desperately trying to get rid of the straggling letters on the rack, I am already losing interest. By then the fancy and grandiose words have already been played, and large scores amassed, and thrilling seven-letter sweeps accomplished with panache.


For those with an obsession with Scrabble and online play, the Calcutta-based Agarwalla brothers have come up with Scrabulous. A news piece about it is here. Let it not be said that desi programmers can only work on projects and not on products. It's earning them a few tens of thousands of dollars every month in revenue, which, for the small-scale operation they run, is rather good, eh?

UPDATE: 16 Jan 2007: It appears that the copyright owners of Scrabble have asked Facebook to take Scrabulous offline. It was just a matter of time. Sigh.


Anonymous said...

The best thing about Scrabulous is that one can play many games simultaneously and make 1 or 2 moves a day rather than play intense, hyper-competitive games. I am playing 3 games - 2 with a friend in Texas and 1 with a friend in California. I lost 1 but I was always a fool for good words rather than high scores. What can I say? :-)

Fëanor said...

@laviequotidienne: Welcome to Jost a Mon, and thanks for the comment. What you say reminds me of an old Archie comic strip in which he is playing long distance chess with someone in some other city. Basically he's strung along for months, and then it turns out that Reggie was messing with him. Hmm. Seemed funnier at the time :-).

Anonymous said...

Feanor: In my case, they are my friends so I know they exist :-)

But yes, in a more open, less walled-garden, virtual world, that scenario is even more plausible than in the pre-internet world of Archie.

That said, I have a ham radio aficionado in my family who once talked with King Hussain of Jordan (before he died of course) and since hammers have unique handles, they are verifiable.

In the ether anything can happen - and in a New York minute, everything can change.

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