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I guess I just like liking things

I checked to make sure, and it doesn't look like there are any dirty words showing, so I think we're okay

I checked to make sure, and it doesn’t look like there are any dirty words showing, so I think we’re okay

I’ve been playing Scrabble regularly now for 20 years, which I just now realized is half my life. Whoa.

Anyway, I grew up around Scrabble – my mom would play it when she got around friends and family, and they let me play every so often, but CAT and THE don’t make for very good scores or good playing fields, so I mostly just spectated.  During my college years, I spent five summers traveling on various groups and before I left one summer I bought a Travel Scrabble to take with me.

Up to this point, I had only seen how my mom and her friends had played the game, but I wanted to make sure I was playing it right, so I read through the rulebook and that’s how we played that summer. When I got back home at the end of the summer and started playing with my mom and her friends, I discovered pretty quickly that some “house rules” had worked their way into their games. Being the know-it-all-smarty-pants college kid, I straightened them out on the rules and they were gracious enough to play that way. I don’t even remember what rules they had changed, other than they kept the letter they chose at the beginning to determine turn order, but there were a few of them.  Soon, though, they were all playing by The Actual Rules, and that’s how it still is today.  I think it even rekindled an excitement for the game for some of them. Or perhaps I am just glorifying rules because I am a slave to them. We may never know.

Those 4-5 years of playing were me at my best, Scrabble-wise. We played almost daily in the van while traveling or stopped somewhere, and the more you play, the more words you pick up. I still remember Andy getting mad at me a few times for, as he put it, “always challenging his words and being right but then never being wrong when my words were challenged.” In his defense, some words that are great for Scrabble are ridiculous for life.  CWM, for instance.  I can’t ever remember what it means (“Welsh valley,” I guess), nor would I have any idea how to pronounce it (“coom,” says that site) but it has come in handy more than once.

I got a little Scrabble crazy, I’ll admit. I read books, did puzzles, started memorizing 2-letter words, all the stuff you do. I imagined it’d be fun to to play in a tournament, even though I knew from reading that only the most … dedicated players did well in them.  “Dedicated” there is a nice term for “obsessed,” people who have not only memorized the 2-letter words and most (if not all) the 3-letter words, but have also studied most likely trays and outcomes. Read Word Freak if you want a better picture of that life. It fascinated me and warned me all at the same time.

Once I stopped traveling it became harder to play against real live people as often. I started buying computer versions, getting upgrades every time even though they weren’t that different. Then I got my first smartphone (8? 9? years ago), a Samsung Blackjack, and there was a $10 version of Scrabble I could get for it. It was the first paid “app” (they weren’t called that back then) I ever bought. I couldn’t play against other people, but playing against the computer was still fun for me.  Now, of course, there are apps and webpages and Facebook add-ons and the whole deal, with plenty of opportunities to play against the computer and real people.

A few years ago I got into Sudoku for a while. I enjoyed it, but I noticed my Scrabble scores took a hit. It was the strangest thing, like my brain had to be wired for one or the other but couldn’t do both. I’ll still occasionally do a Sudoku puzzle here and there, but I had to give it up for the most part because I value Scrabble more.

I’m playing a lot more Scrabble these days, but I’ve lost something along the way.  I’m not in the fighting shape I was. I don’t know if it was the daily playing or the limited playing field, but back in my hey-day I very rarely lost a game. That’s not a brag, it’s just how it was. But nowadays, I rarely win.  And it’s not just that I don’t win, I sometimes do very poorly.  See, my favorite way to play Scrabble is a two-player game. You have a better chance at good letters and board position, and it’s a better test of your abilities. Getting a score of 300 or better in a two-player game is a decent average for a non-tournament player, and it serves as a good benchmark. Back in The Day, I reset my expectations to 350 for a while, but that is long gone. In the last five games I’ve played on the Facebook/app version, not only have I only won one of them, three of those times I didn’t crack 300 and lost those games by over 100 points. It’s frustrating, but I’ll never quit a game I’m losing, because I’m not in it to beat someone, I’m in it to beat the tiles and the board and get the best words I can.

That’s why it’s so frustrating to play against cheaters. I don’t understand why they’re playing. With the proliferation of online ways to play Scrabble has come a myriad of ways to cheat. The official app itself has a browsable dictionary built in, a decision I find mind-blowingly ridiculous. Granted, the official rules make no mention of not looking up words, but tournament rules do and, honestly, common sense applies here. How is looking up words to play a test of abilities of any sort? If one were to want to test one’s ability to look up words, surely there are avenues other than Scrabble games?  When playing a face-to-face game, it’s easy to keep each other honest. But online games which usually take place over several days have to be based on trust. There are sites that will not only give you the best words to play based on your rack but will also tell you the best place to play it on the board if you give it enough information. Again, I do not understand one bit why a person would use these sites. How is the game any fun at all at that point? What are you proving?  If it become clear to me that someone is using resources other than their own, I generally will not play any more games with them.  Yes, I am playing to beat the tiles and the board, but part of that process is how the other player helps create the board. Of course I like winning (and it’s especially fulfilling when it’s against someone who is obviously cheating), who doesn’t? But it’s bigger than that. Yes, I’m talking about a whole “sanctity of the game” thing here, and I probably won’t be talked down from this particular high horse any time soon.

I will admit to liking the “teacher” function on the app.  After you’ve played your word, the teacher will tell you how you did, if you want. The older version of the app had these hilarious looks that would give you an indication without even clicking on it:

From L. to R.: "How are you even able to click on things?!?," "Meh," "That word was like a special brownie to me," and "I'm so proud of you!"

From L. to R.: “How are you even able to click on things?!?,” “Meh,” “That word was like a special brownie to me,” and “I’m so proud of you!”

If you click on it, the teacher will show you how you could have done better. I like this because there’s nothing you can do about it after the fact – you’ve already played your letters. I have often uttered a “D’oh!” on seeing the suggestion (usually associated with that leftmost icon) because I can’t believe I missed it. Sometimes, though, the word it suggests is something I’ve never heard of in and would never have gotten in a million years, so I don’t feel bad about it.

Because I’m signed on to the whole Scrabble experience, you’d think I’d like word games of any sort. While I can get behind things like crossword puzzles, Boggle and Wordament, I generally don’t like most Scrabble-type game variations (Words With Friends, for example). For me it has to do with the points and the setup. For me, a J is worth 8 points. A Z is worth 10. There are 8 Triple Word Score spaces on a 15-by-15 space board. All of the bonus tiles are laid out specifically.  With these ingrained point structures, a 300-point game means a particular thing to me. In Words With Friends or Upwards or even the official Super Scrabble, the points mean nothing to me – there’s no context any more.  What good is a 300-point game as a personal benchmark if an average score in some other game is 400 or a million?

That said, I will admit to recently playing frequent games of AlphaJax. Part of this, I think, is that there is not yet an official Scrabble app for Windows Phones. Part of it is that there are Xbox Achievements for the game.  It’s been interesting to me to see how I play it, though. I don’t have the same feelings during a game that I do during Scrabble. It feels sort of like doing a sidequest in an RPG – I don’t need to do it, but it helps my main quest. I don’t care about scores as much since there’s no context for them, so I’m a bit more free in trying combinations and whatnot. I realize that the draw for me (the achievements) is what has drawn many of these other players, so I roll my eyes at the obvious cheaters rather than get outraged. I still think it’s ridiculous, but since it’s outside the Scrabble walls, it doesn’t affect me.

So it seems I am a Scrabble fan, not a “word games” fan. I love the English language, even though it’s crazy and sometimes haphazard. Maybe that’s why I like Scrabble so much – I still get to enjoy the language, but its ruleset makes more overall sense.

I close with this, my promise to you: If you and I ever play Scrabble, know that you are actually playing me, my history and knowledge, not some dictionary- or website-enabled version of me. This goes for in-person games as well as online ones. 


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