When my brother and I played Scrabble as kids, it was a triumph to spell a word at all, never mind scoring. Even the high scoring letters didn’t improve our games because our vocabulary wasn’t up to our aspirations. The only words with an x that we knew were ax and ox and we’d argue about the plurals. The only viable z word we knew was zoo. It was too much to hope that we’d get a z and a b in the same hand, let alone the other accoutrements for spelling zebra, the only other z word we knew. We didn’t know about qi.
But it was a start. As an adult, I had Sylvia, a bi-monthly Scrabble partner who was worlds better than me. I know of no better way to improve one’s game than to play with someone who is 1) more advanced, 2) doesn’t care whether she wins or not, just enjoys the company and the game, and 3) is patient. I hit the trifecta with Sylvia and I learned a lot.
When my mother was in her dotage, Scrabble was something we could do without fighting. She was a fierce cheater, but I didn’t care what she did as long as she didn’t talk religion or ask me if I went to church. She played with nine tiles –Why waste the room on the tray?– and if she didn’t like her hand, she traded tiles during my turn.
“Mom, you can’t just change your tiles!”
“Well, I can’t use these letters.”
She could never just put tiles on the board. She had to make an announcement. If her word was dance, she arranged the tiles saying, “I’ll just do a little dance.” If her word was dame, she said, “I guess I’ll be a little dame.”
Fast forward to the age of Computer Scrabble. When I decided I was spending too much time playing Free Cell Solitaire, ( http://www.elenalouiserichmond.com/2010/09/on-justifying-hours-of-free-cell-solitaire/) I moved to Scrabble. I started on the Veteran level and moved quickly to Smart and Elite by virtue of using the Hints and Best Play menus i.e. by cheating. In this I was my mother’s daughter. I won 2500 games and lost 111, and picked up some skills, though as it has turned out, not as many as I thought. I moved on to Facebook Scrabble with Chris, the Unclassifiable. I won most of our games so Chris was an easy transition to playing in a system where I couldn’t cheat.
I discovered a seductive little feature on Facebook called “Stats.” I started watching my rank rise. I was second in line when I friended two people who play with greater skill and it knocked me all the way to No. 4. Both of them invited me to play and it has been almost unbearably frustrating for me, the little cheater. In two moves, they are already 150 points ahead of me and this with just commonplace letters. They aren’t even working with x, z and q. I told Chris about it.
“Welcome to my world,” she said.
“But do you just want to cry?” I asked her. “So frustrated that you want to cry?”
“No,” she said. “I get mad.” Then she laughed. She didn’t sound mad.
Every morning I play my game with Chris, and she goes off to work. The two Facebook Aces are in a position to play Scrabble all day long. Unfortunately I am, too. If I thought “Stats” was seductive, it’s nothing compared to the thought that if that so and so doesn’t block me, I can hang all my tiles off the word Rhamnus in my next turn. And by the way, how does someone even know that word?
My friend Nancy introduced me to Lexulous which is like Scrabble only the scoring is inflated. In addition, Nancy has bunches of degrees in English and has been teaching it for 30 years. She can soar 250 points ahead of me before the board even downloads. It’s so terrifying there almost isn’t time to cry. The first time I won a Lexulous game with Nancy, I thought she was off her feed.
“I just did the best I could with the tiles I had,” she said graciously. She says that even when she wins.
See, this is what cheating has done: set me up with the illusion that I can always win. I am finding it hard to play with such congenial company. Chris laughs no matter who wins and Nancy says she finds the game relaxing. Meanwhile I’m crunching hard candy and obsessing, with time-outs to meditate on the idea that cheaters never prosper. My ignominy, in all its definitions, is complete.
Ignominy. Eight letters. I can hear my mother: “I’ll just have a little ignominy.”