Happy V-Day

I’m spending Valentine’s Day alone and snowed in while Marty is in Vegas playing Scrabble.  I really don’t mind.  Really.  I would have minded twenty years ago, but today I believe that Valentine’s Day serves two basic purposes:  1) it’s a way for florists and chocolatiers to make a lot of money and 2) it’s an exam tougher than the GRE’s or the MCAT’s that women put men through in order to discover whether they are marriage or even serious relationship material.  If a woman repeatedly tells a man her favorite flower is the yellow tulip and that she despises red roses because they remind her of funeral parlors, and the man gets her red roses, well, that relationship is dead.  If a woman tells a man she doesn’t like chocolate, and the man does NOT get her chocolate, the man is once more screwed because the woman will think, “He didn’t get me chocolates because he thinks I’m fat.” A card, of course, is ALWAYS necessary, and it has to be the right card.

When Marty and I had been together for a year and a half or so, he got me the wrong card.  Apparently, Hallmark makes a card for commitment-phobic men that goes something like this: “I like you so very very much.  I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I treasure this special day.”  He gave me the card at a Scrabble tournament we’d both been playing in.  To make matters worse, Marty came in to the hotel room at eleven after playing even more Scrabble in the after-hours Scrabble room.

Because I save every card Marty has given me, and because this particular card is not in my collection, I’m assuming I tore it up in front of his face.

Since then, I’ve gotten real nice cards from my husband, sometimes with a couple of crisp fifties in them.

I used to think this was not very romantic, but rethought my stance when I remembered an ex-boyfriend who’d gotten me a fire extinguisher for Valentine’s Day.  And then a girlfriend told me about how she got a vacuum cleaner from her (now ex) husband on February 14th.

As a child I never really liked Valentine’s Day.  The nuns made sure that we knew it was SAINT Valentine’s Day.  Valentine was one of those vague saints, like Christopher.  I imagined Christopher as big and kind of clumsy, but really nice.  Valentine was more delicate, but also a good guy.  It kind of put a damper on things when the nun said that Saint Valentine had been martyred.  Was this why we were exchanging candy hearts and cheap little heart-shaped cards with highly gendered puppies and bunnies and skunks?  Because this nice guy had been tortured and killed?  (Hmmm. I suppose I could make an analogy here between love and suffering.)

By the time I got to high school, nobody was calling it SAINT Valentine’s Day. Maybe the poor guy got demoted or, like Christopher, desainted because of a lack of historical evidence. (Of course, desainted is not a valid Scrabble word, even in Collins, but I’m writing to Pope Francis to see what might be done about this.)

Anyway, I’m perfectly happy laying on the couch, watching men in tights and low buttoned shirts ice-dancing to romantic music. I take breaks to study some Scrabble words while munching on the chocolate truffles I’d asked Marty to hide when he left for Vegas.  I found them in his office/storage room, underneath a baseball cap on his desk. I think of words that have to do with love: CUPID (and its anagram PUDIC), HEART (and its anagrams HATER, EARTH, and RATHE), AMOUR, OUTLOVE, OVERLOVE, MARTYR, MONEY, CASH, etc.

Checking Out Czech Scrabble

My guest blogger today is Marty Gabriel.  I know you’ll enjoy his thorough reporting and engaging commentary.  

One of my New Year resolutions is to finally write about Czech Scrabble. Although it’s only been two months since I traveled to Prague, I intended to write an article within a week or two of returning to the United States. Unfortunately, a nagging illness, heavy snows, and frigid, pipe-bursting temperatures have inhibited me. But so has a growing sense of trepidation that I may not be up to the task, even when unencumbered by the consequences of poor health and extreme weather.

It’s not easy to write accurately about another culture. Journalists almost invariably misstate basic facts and concepts when they report about club or tournament Scrabble despite having some familiarity with the game, and I fear my status as a Scrabble expert of Czech descent may not be sufficient protection against a similar fate. If I stumble, I hope my new Czech friends will identify my errors and set the record straight.

Before heading to the Czech Republic I entered the words “Gabriel Prague” into Google to try to determine how common my last name might be there. My father’s brother had researched his family tree extensively and I’d been told my paternal grandfather was Bohemian, but my uncle died and I’ve lost contact with his children so I’m not privy to more details. My Google search was productive, though; I learned that the “Linked In” website has 8 pages of Gabriels who list Prague as their workplace. With 12 names to a page that’s about 100 Gabriels!

I didn’t try to contact any of the Linked In Gabriels, but I was hoping I would find one at the short Czech Scrabble tournament that was part of the Mind Sports International festival that included the English Scrabble world championship (officially called the Scrabble Champions Tournament in 2013), in which I’d finished in 45th place.  I had achieved a goal of being among the top 50 players at the end of this prestigious event. However, this standing was insufficient for my inclusion in the four player playoff to determine the ultimate champion.  My consolation was being free to watch the Czech tourney, which was being held concurrently.

The Czech tourney was played in a medium size room downstairs and across a courtyard from the part of the hotel where the world championship’s final four playoff participants were competing with an overflow crowd next door, packed into a large viewing room, watching every move on closed circuit television. The twenty Czech competitors, on the other hand, had more than enough space for their Scrabble games. The first person I met there was Petra Kuĉová, a friendly and very attractive young woman, who appeared to be directing the event very efficiently. Her ability to speak English fluently, though immensely important to me, was irrelevant for her job as “referee” (a title she preferred to director), because the tournament was played with a Czech dictionary as the word source.

 

One hundred tiles were used, as in English Scrabble. However, there are thirty-nine Czech letters due in part to the inclusion of an additional A, C, D, I, N, O, R, S, T, Y, and Z with various diacritical marks above them, described by Petra as either ĉźarkas (“commas”), krouźeks (“little circles”), or háĉeks (“little hooks”).The E and the U are even more complicated; there are three types of each. There is no W in Czech Scrabble and, ironically, no Q! The highest point value tiles include the X (10 pts.), Ď (8 pts.), Ť (7 pts.), Ó (7 pts.), Ň (6 pts.), F (5 pts.), G (5 pts.), and Ú (5 pts.).

 

Petra noted that the X and G were added to the Czech alphabet to accommodate foreign words which have made their way into the Czech language, such as BOX and TAG. I was surprised and pleased to see those on players’ boards amongst such gems as POŽIVATI, NEHVČIS, and JAKÚV (I think I may be able to guess the meaning of that one). I also noticed the word TAXY, which means TAXI in English, and learned from Petra that the Y in Czech often serves to pluralize words, as the S does in English.

 

As I traversed the room, I saw a number of long words and board configurations that suggested a rather high level of anagramming skill. Petra indicated that many of the words may have involved extensions, though, due to the fact that Czech is a highly inflected language. However, I saw at least two impressive plays that I knew were not.

 

The first was played by Petra’s muscular boyfriend, Jiří Matĕjček. It was ISOTOPY, a word I might have played and a word that was certainly a bingo! The second was played by the youngest player of the twenty who were participating, Vojta Vacek, who was near the end of his game against Petra’s father, Petr Kuča, when I arrived at their board.

 

Petr had introduced himself to me during the lunch break. He explained that he does not want to retire from his job as a nuclear safety engineer and that he learned English by listening to NPR radio. He is a leader in the Czech Scrabble community, responsible for providing playing equipment and maintaining the Czech Scrabble website among other things, and I’d later learn that his son is the highest rated Scrabble player in the country.

 

Vojta and Petr were playing on customary Czech equipment, which included a standard Scrabble bag, brightly colored Braille-proof plastic tiles and a flat board. To eliminate the difficulty turning such a board would entail, Czech players position the board sideways between them. Petr told me that he and other Czech players had seen the turntable style boards used in the world championship tourney, but rather than coveting them, they considered them “childish”. This, I would learn, is only one of several significant differences between Czech and English Scrabble.

 

Czech Scrabble clocks are about the size of salt or pepper shakers and they are programmed to beep loudly after two minutes have elapsed with smaller beeping sounds being emitted at regular intervals preceding this as warning signals. If a player takes longer than two minutes to complete a move, the turn is forfeited. The referee rings a bell to start each round of play and rings the bell again after 40 minutes. If players have not completed their game at that point they each can take up to two additional turns. This insures that no game will take longer than 48 minutes to complete.  As far as I could tell, nobody exceeded their time allotments. Petr graciously brought an old clock to the hotel for me on his way to work the next day. I’m thinking of using it as a training aid. As I am prone to play at a turtle’s pace, the Czech player’s speediness momentarily had me questioning my ancestry. Then I remembered; I’m also half Greek.

 

Another major difference between Czech Scrabble and English Scrabble is that tile tracking is verboten in Czech Scrabble. Furthermore, players are not allowed to make notes of any kind on their score sheets, which they turn in to the referee after each round. Petra explained that tile tracking was allowed at one time but it was thought to be unfairly advantageous for very fast players.”There was heavy debate about the rules, but now it works quite well”, she said. I pointed out that tile tracking is necessary for play at the highest level, but Petr and Petra were steadfast in their disdain for the practice.

 

Martin Hruby, on the other hand, is in favor of more lenient rules in this regard. I was pleased to notice that Martin is another popular name in the Czech Republic, and this Martin was another friendly Czech player who spoke English well. Martin eagerly showed me his dictionary after overhearing me talk to Petra about Czech Scrabble study materials. His book was a rather dogeared volume without definitions, similar to the Official Tournament and Club Word List that is used at North American Scrabble clubs. An avid studier, Martin had identified especially useful words with red pen marks, but he bemoaned that he often could not use many of the longer words he had studied because of the lack of flexibility that’s a consequence of having 39 discrete tiles in a set of 100 and the relative paucity of two letter words in the Czech language for overlaps.

 

Nonetheless, Martin indicated that the top Czech players are able to average about one bingo per game. There are about 12-16 tourneys each year in the Czech Republic, mostly in and around Prague, and there is a qualification system that determines which 32 players will vie for the national championship, an eleven game event held in the fall. Martin has not won the national championship yet, but he did win a tournament that had 120 players and was the largest Scrabble tourney ever held in the Czech Republic!

 

Martin said he didn’t participate in the qualifying tourney to determine the two Czech Republic representatives at the 2013 English Scrabble world championship because “I knew I’d get killed”. Other top Czech players felt similarly, which enabled a woman who had played for years without even qualifying for the Czech national championship event to qualify. She had an English speaking spouse, but that didn’t prepare her nearly well enough for the world championship event; she went 0-31 in the English Scrabble Champions Tournament, losing by more than 200 points per game. But she didn’t quit!

 

I told Martin I’d like to play a game of Czech Scrabble with him, if he’d allow me to use his dictionary during play and have free challenges, but, unfortunately, after the Czech tourney he only had time to watch the conclusion of the World English Scrabble championship playoff with me before hustling off prepare to join his wife and young son in the Philippines. She returned to her homeland to have their baby recently because the hospital costs can be exorbitant for naturalized citizens in the Czech Republic.

 

The Czech tourney I was observing was being held a few weeks after the Czech national championship tourney, so attendance was atypically low, less than half the usual size of 40-50 entrants. But it was typical in that there were no divisions. Players are paired randomly at the start of Czech tourneys and subsequently paired Swiss style, with players ranked according to a computation involving their wins, margin, and strength of schedule (determined by the number of games their opponents have won).

 

When I happened upon the game involving Petr, the distinguished club elder, and cherubic, nine year old Vojta, shortly after midday, I was struck by the contrast in the pairing. The game was nearly over and Vojta seemed quite happy. He had just played a two letter word, placing a J on a triple letter space in front of an I to make JI. I thought this was very good use of a “hot spot” until I remembered that the J is only a 2 point tile in Czech Scrabble. Petr’s thick beard made his expression harder to discern, but he seemed more subdued and serious. “I hope he’s not beating the lad too badly,” I thought, as he made his move. I needn’t have worried; Vojta quickly emptied his rack to form a bingo, VYHRÁLA, down a triple-word lane, using the two blanks properly to make the R and A, and hooking the Á onto JI, making ÁJI. The play was worth 85 points and the final score 396-250 in Vojta’s favor! The boy had played superbly and won! (Ironically his bingo means “she has won”.) I was stunned as, I suspect, was Petr!

 

Vojta’s parents were also playing in the tourney and they were certainly quite proud of their son. His mother, Jana, said that Vojta “loves playing Scrabble” and that he plays in a twelve team Scrabble league in weekly matches against adults, winning about a third of his games. Jana has won a couple of Scrabble tourneys and her husband, another Martin, has won more than half a dozen; evidently this apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Perhaps Vojta will become a champion of champions someday!

 

Petra told me the first Czech national champion was an amazing fourteen year old girl. Imagine the joyous cries of her supporters; “VYHRÁLA!”; “VYHRÁLA!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prague II

            I don’t write in my blog as much as I should because writing is hard. Often when I feel the urge to write, I realize I haven’t organized my makeup drawer in a while—the lipsticks have mated with the eyebrow pencils, with disappointing results.  Or I think that maybe it’s time to watch some funny cat videos because who knows how long they’ll be on the internet? What else is difficult is grading student papers; you can’t just draw smiley or frowny faces. When I’m faced with a stack of papers AND I’m recovering from a migraine AND a cold, I know this is a sign from the universe that I should neither write nor grade papers, but do something different and fun. Like get my eyebrows professionally dyed.

            “You have very tiny blonde eyebrow hairs,” the certified cosmetologist told me. Or maybe a certified cosmologist told me this—I often confuse the two words.  “I think you can go several shades darker,” she said. I listened to her, because certified cosmetologists are always right. When I got home I realized that I looked like Groucho Marx in drag. Sans mustache (I had that waxed off a week ago), but with post-nasal drip.  This is not a look that suits me, so I decided to use some household bleach to get my eyebrows back to normal.  Well, the bleach got in my eyes and now I’m certifiably blind, but luckily this has not affected my typing ability.

            How does this relate to Scrabble, you ask? Well, I’m picking up Marty from the airport tomorrow (which may be hard to do since I’m now blind.)  He’s returning from the Prague Mind Sports competition and Scrabble is a Mind Sport and I want to look pretty. Wanting to look pretty has backfired on me in the past.  Once, when I was supposed to be on television, I realized I looked especially jowly. A Google search of How to Look Less Jowly yielded a few suggestions. Among the most popular was to apply some Preparation H to the affected jowly area. The cameraman kept sniffing me and, yes, I attracted a bunch of assholes.

          Marty has been having a great time in Prague. Perhaps too great a time. He loves the city—the food and the beer and the old medieval buildings. Yesterday he finally got to do some serious sightseeing. He took in an organ concert at an old church and found himself deeply moved, especially by the Bach.  I was happy to hear this, because I love classical music and sometimes wish Marty shared my passion more deeply. He’s grown to love certain composers and genres. Not opera, though. He told me he’d run in to Joel Wapnick before the tournament and that Joel was going to (or had been at) the opera.

            “Marty, why don’t YOU go to the opera?” I asked.

            “Uh, because I don’t like opera?”

            And then Brian Bowman wrote on Facebook that he’d gone to the opera.

            “Marty, why don’t YOU go to the opera?” I asked again, like some character in a modern fairy tale.

            “Uh, because I don’t like opera?”

            I’d taken Marty to the Lyric a few times, but had tickets for particularly uninspiring works: Amistad, a modern atonal opera with little action; and some minor Donizetti.  Marty listened for a while, then took out his six to make eights bright pink anagramming note cards.

            Anyway, I was pleased that he liked the organ recital, but then he mentioned that he went to some bar that evening for take-out breaded pork tenderloin and that some woman tried to flirt with him.

            “A young or older woman?” I asked.

            “Oh, she was quite young,” he answered.

            “How do you know she was flirting with you?”

            “Don’t be jealous, sweetie. I didn’t flirt back. Once you’ve had steak, you lose your appetite for hamburger.”

            “So you’re calling me a piece of meat.”

            “You know, sometimes I think I just can’t win.”

            The flirting thing got me thinking that I need to take better care of myself.  So I unbleached the eyebrows with some commercial hair color and now they’ve all fallen out.  I went for a walk, but it was cold and the post-nasal drip turned to ice on my face, leaving a permanent scar beneath my nose. I thought I would console myself with some chocolate, so I bought a big bar that was on clearance at CVS. The reason it was on sale was because it was this special chocolate with salt and chillis, which made my face break out. Won’t Marty be surprised.

           

           

           

Prague

 

It’s irritating when your husband gets to go to Prague to play Scrabble and you’re stuck in Charleston with something called WORK, especially since it’s the last week of classes and student excuses fill the air like bad Justin Bieber songs. 

Marty is playing in the international Scrabble Champions tournament, part of something called the Mind Sports Festival, though I keep referring to it as the Mind Games Festival.

            “Marty is playing in the Mind Games Festival,” I tell friends.

            “Daiva, shouldn’t you be playing? I mean, you know, mind games….”

            (Yeah, why didn’t I receive an invitation?)

Anyway, here’s a link to the events: http://event.poslfit.com/2013/sct/index.html

This is what I’m doing to deal with the resentment and loneliness caused by Marty’s selfish absence. (I’ve also discovered that these are GREAT ways to avoid grading student papers and preparing for class.

1. Inviting the neighborhood stray over for a soak in the hot tub followed by a cold shower and complimentary beef jerky treats.

2.     Attempting to find all of the Lintz chocolates I’ve asked Marty to hide.  I make it a game. Each time I find one, I give myself a quarter from Marty’s “secret” stash of change.

3.      Playing imaginary Scrabble with Marty (Collins and TWL) and always winning. Saying things like, “Look, honey, I made BOBFLOAT for 203 points. That’s good in Collins, right?” and “Ooh, I think I have QUETZAL on my rack.”

4.     Cleaning out Marty’s closet and taking older items (pre-1968) to the Salvation Army.

5.     Making prank midnight phone calls to Marty’s opponents in Prague.

6.     Cheering for the Green Bay Packers.

7.     Forming dirty words from Cheezit Scrabble crackers.  In bed.

8.     Listening to MY holiday favorites: Oi to the World by the Vandals (oi is good in Collins, BTW); the Dean Martin version of It’s a Marshmallow World (where he slurs the words—ha ha!); Bach’s Christmas cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens BWV 110 with text by Georg Christian Lehms; the Lee Vees How Do You Spell Channukkahh; and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rendition of The Little Drummer Boy.

9.     Realizing that the world is my snowball.

10.Emailing old boyfriends “to catch up on things.”

(Just kidding, Marty. I love you and miss you and hope you’re having fun in the land of your ancestors.) 

Scrabble Widow

Marty is in Charleston, West Virginia playing Scrabble.  I am in Charleston, Illinois grading English 1000 papers, writing up a report as to how I spent my summer grant money, writing up a proposal asking for more money, reading and commenting on several graduate student prospectuses.  I haven’t done laundry in a week. One unfortunate consequence is that I’m out of my more dignified clothes; on Monday I wore a pair of too-tight aqua-colored pants to school. “Ooh, Professor Markelis is wearing green skinny jeans!” a student exclaimed loudly.

Guess who’s having more fun? Correct answer: Marty. Oh, I have my little pleasures lined up for the weekend: I’ll take breaks to watch the World Series while munching on low-fat Doritos, I’ll read an Alice Munro short story (she just won the Nobel Prize in Literature—check her out).  I’m usually amused by the writing of my freshmen (when I’m not horrified.) One student recently wrote that he enjoys watching “mediators falling through the sky.”  It took me only a second to realize the student meant “meteors”; I will never be able to look at a falling star without thinking of earnest men and women in bad suits hurtling through the heavens with open briefcases.

In addition to not being the one having more fun, I am also the lonelier one this weekend.  I do have friends, but one of my reasons for not going to Charleston, WV is to catch up on work.  Calling people in Charleston, IL to make plans for getting together would just defeat the purpose.   

Me:  “Do you want to go for a walk at three?”

Friend:  “I’m busy at three. How about eleven?”

Me:  “Eleven falls within the limited frame of my prime writing time.  Maybe we can just do coffee. How about noon?”

Friend: “Who does coffee at noon? Besides, I’ve given up caffeine.”

Me:  “You’ve given up caffeine? When did this happen?”

          One advantage of being happily coupled is that you can be in one room, your partner in another, and still feel connected.  A five-minute break every hour—a short chat, a long hug, a quick “Let’s see if you can anagram this”— is enough to alleviate any sense of loneliness. Alone without company, I find myself chatting with the refrigerator, hugging the book shelves, asking Miguel Cabrera to anagram EEILLNOR.

         My spouseless (SPOUSELESS is good only in Collins) husband, on the other hand, is not feeling lonely in the least.Playing game after game of Scrabble makes you forget your essential aloneness in a world seemingly indifferent to your needs and desires.  You may feel other emotions, for example, anger; your opponent, ahead by two hundred points, is taking an awfully long time shuffling those tiles.  You may feel disgust—how in the world did you miss TENUOUS? You know your OUTENS stem, AND you’ve memorized all of the seven letter words with two Us.  You may feel that a great cosmic injustice has been inflicted upon you by the Scrabble gods—one lousy blank in six games.  But you will probably not be feeling lonely. Being engaged in an activity where you really need to concentrate AND where you are surrounded by people prevents that most embarrassing of emotions.

And that’s one of the great things about the game, perhaps even the reason so many introverts are drawn to Scrabble.  It not only keeps your mind sharp, but also allows for a sense of connection that isn’t anxiety provoking. (I’m talking about big party/new people anxiety.) Most people chat between games; they bemoan their luck or analyze troublesome racks.  Even if they don’t—even if they stand on the sidelines looking up words on Zarf—they are ten or twenty minutes away from sitting down and facing the person across the board and playing a game they love.

What Happens in Scrabble Club

Once every month, on a Saturday, my husband and I open the doors of our house to Scrabble players of all levels and ages. We begin at ten in the morning, and although the official email states that the club will end at five, there are individuals who will play until I put my foot down and kick them out. Marty thinks I’m rude, but if he had his way some of them would Scrabble into the night, take a short nap, and be up by breakfast, shuffling tiles and demanding pancakes. (In reality, I never kick anybody out—it’s just that five or six games is my limit.  Kind of like with vodka martinis back when I was drinking.)

We are Club Number 601, one of four in Illinois.  Marty thinks we’re the best because of his meticulous maintenance of various statistics: games won and lost, bingos played (including phonies), changes in ratings. Once a player has twenty-five wins, he or she is awarded a free NASPA membership, courtesy of Marty. He awards prizes at the end of the year to Most Improved Player as well as Rookie of the Year. There is an Outrageous Phony Award—no explanation needed—and something called the Spirit Award given to the individual who best exemplifies the qualities of good sportsmanship.

“How come I never win the Spirit Award?” I asked Marty once.  

He laughed in my face.  

I think we’re the best club because there are no dues or fees and Marty provides Subway sandwiches and soda. People bring snacks, such as chocolates and crackers in the form of Scrabble tiles, or vegetable platters, or home made cookies. Most importantly, there is always coffee.

Marty’s official title at the club is Director.  Mine is Mrs. Director.

“If I’m Mrs. Director, shouldn’t you be Mr. Director?” I’ve asked more than once.

“The Mrs. Director is kind of a joke,” he chuckled.  

What else makes us a superior club is that whenever a regular member has a birthday during the month, we celebrate with cake and special prizes for highest scoring words played using that person’s initials. Sometimes we have prizes for descriptive words. The birthday celebrant gets to choose which word best describes him or her.

Sometimes the words are not very nice. For example, when it was my birthday, a player who shall remain nameless put down DOGEARS to describe me. Another player suggested GRUMP, yet another, SKANK. Luckily (for my self-esteem and the safety of club members), other descriptive choices included ADORABLE, GLITZY, HEAVENS, and ROBUST.

One of the most satisfying things about running a Scrabble club is seeing people get better at the game. A good example is my friend and colleague, Angela. When she first came to our club she was averaging 250. At some point, however, she must have had a Scrabble epiphany—she learned the importance of pyramiding high-point tiles. After that, she started studying stems. Of course, she’s always had some advantages—her wide vocabulary and her spelling ability; Angela is a superior speller.  In fact, she’s won the EIU English Club’s Faculty-Student Spelling Bee. I came in second, humiliated by effrontery. Somewhere deep down in the recesses of my word-befogged brain, I knew that it couldn’t be spelled with an a—affront, affrontery—though it made perfect sense standing there in front of hundreds of people. (Okay, maybe there were only eighteen people–a good turnout for English Club.)

I don’t mind losing to Angela. I’m not quite sure why.  Yes, I do know why.  When she wins, she doesn’t gloat. And when she loses, she doesn’t complain. And when she plays, she doesn’t have that teeth-baring look on her face, as if she’s about to start barking.

I don’t mind losing to my friend and former colleague, Mary. Well, okay, I do mind losing to her.  (Not as much as I mind losing to my husband or to players rated way below me who I’m convinced whisper to each other “She’s really not that good” when they beat me.)

Mary is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop—perhaps the best writing program in the country. She knew Raymond Carver (and John Irving and a bunch of other really famous writers.) Her fiction is dark and suspenseful. Sections of her novel Talion (available on Amazon) kept me up all night. I kept wondering whether the serial killer was based on someone who worked in the English Department. She had described him as a professor of writing at a mid-sized, rurally located Midwestern university.

Mary and I both tend to get morose when we lose at Scrabble, which can make for an interesting situation since we often play each other. We are getting better at losing, however. We just have to remind ourselves that Scrabble is a stupid game and huge time waster and we’re going to stop playing for good. No, seriously, we just have to remind ourselves that there are other things in life, such as writing and traveling and horses and  online shopping.

For the most part, Scrabble Club #601 is a friendly, peaceful kind of place. The police have only been called once, six or so years ago, when two out-of-town Scrabble players got into an argument and one of them pulled out a knife and attempted to slash the tires of the other’s car.  I should state that these two men are generally very intelligent, nice, and funny. They are expert Scrabble players, though one of them doesn’t play anymore. The argument wasn’t about Scrabble, though the fact that one of them lost to the other fueled the flames of anger.

The Charleston police arrived promptly. “Please, let there be no violence,” I silently prayed when the cop pulled out his gun. I imagined the headlines: “Carnage at local Scrabble Club.”  

The knife-wielding player spent most of the night in jail.

“What happens in Scrabble Club, stays in Scrabble Club,” I told Marty that night.

With the passage of time tempers cool, arguments are forgotten.

Scrabble normality returns.

If there is such a thing as Scrabble normality.

 

Boggle

The recent Slate article about the “superiority” of Boggle to Scrabble http://www.slate.com/articles/life/gaming/2013/08/boggle_vs_scrabble_or_why_there_should_be_a_boggle_national_championship.html made me think of the early weeks of my courtship with Marty. We played a lot of Super Boggle, but I got tired of friends asking what Marty and I did for fun and answering, “Oh, we play a lot of Super Boggle.”  Plus, we got bored.  We needed something more exciting, more dangerous.  This is when we discovered Scrabble.  My scholarly conclusion is that Boggle is the marijuana of games, the gateway drug leading to Scrabble.

            Anyway, here are my recollections.

           The first time I saw Marty’s apartment I felt I’d stepped back into the late Fifties, not the retro fashionable decade of Eames chairs and oval-shaped coffee tables, but the middle class suburban world of plaid couches and crocheted rugs and the obligatory aspidistra plant. A troll doll with a shock of matted green hair guarded a shelf of dusty paperbacks, among them Body Language (price tag—1.25), Ben Hogan’s Guide to Modern Golf (circa 1957), and a dictionary dating back to the days of Dwight Eisenhower.  I picked up the doll as if it were a miraculous relic. When I was growing up, my immigrant parents forbid anything that smacked of the vulgar, cheap, or non-educational; troll dolls were at the top of their vulgar/cheap/non-educational list. That a man in his forties would own such a thing was fascinating and also slightly disturbing.   

“Let’s play some Super Boggle,” Marty said.

It was a brilliant strategic move, distracting me from further investigation of his troll doll collection.

The point of Super Boggle is to make as many words as possible from a grid of      letters printed on the sides of twenty-five dice.  The cubes are shaken in a covered box and then fall into a tray so that only one letter of each die can be seen.

“You know I’m going to win,” I told Marty.  “I know more words than you.”

“Would you like something to drink?” he answered, ignoring my statement.  “I can make you my special concoction.”

            “Special concoction?”

            “Diet Pepsi mixed with cranberry juice and water.”

We sat down at the kitchen table with our Number Two pencils and scraps of paper and our special concoctions. Marty turned over the sand timer. We started jotting down words.  I thought I was doing pretty well with my cat, act, acted, dot, dots, and oxen but then heard Marty furiously scribbling away.  I started writing down highly questionable words just to get the scribble scribble scribble out of my head.

Marty’s final list included detected, oxymoron, and toddies.

I showed him my little inventory.

“Daiva, I don’t think deact, enox and stod are words.”

“Let’s play again,” I said.

We played again.

I lost again.

“Listen, can you put on some music?” I said, needing a breather.

“I think I have a transistor radio somewhere.”

I thought he was joking, but when I went to search the living room for a stereo and CDs, all I saw was the plaid couch and the sad looking plant and a television that may very well have been black and white.  On the walls hung several paintings of nature scenes; in one of them, the pumpkins were almost as big as the haystacks they were propped against.

“Interesting perspective.”

“A relative painted these,” Marty bragged.

“Mm-hmm.”

The bright spot of the room was a small terrarium filled with various succulents, painted rocks, pieces of driftwood and little plastic dinosaurs: a triceratops leaning against the glass as if trying to escape his glassy jail, a tyrannosaurus rex mounting a velociraptor.

“A girl friend gave that to me,” Marty said.  “But the dinosaurs were my own special touch.”

And then I saw that there were little plastic dinosaurs outside the terrarium forming a crooked line on the coffee table. The line continued on the rug, as if the dinosaurs were ants heading towards their hill after putting in a hard day of work on the pavement.

“You haven’t seen the bedroom yet,” Marty said.

“Is it full of dinosaurs?”

Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas with not a whole lot of writing done, but with fresh insights (can there be stale insights?), four books read, and a new pair of shoes—pink satin Ralph Lauren sandals bought on sale at Macy’s in the Fashion Show Mall.  One insight—Scrabble fulfills a social as well as an intellectual function. Duh. I felt lonely in the hotel with Marty playing and my friends far away.  I could have gone to the Riviera to chat, but that was across town and, besides, I would have had to explain why I’m in Vegas and not playing Scrabble.

The social function of Scrabble was made clear yet again in the Facebook comments during and following the Nationals. Women wrote about how great it was seeing old friends and making new ones; men mainly kvetched about how poorly they were doing or bragged about how well the tournament was going for them. Very often they bragged one day then kvetched the other.  Of course, women kvetch, but on FB at least they do it in a genteel and pleasing manner.  And men rarely post things like “So many new friends! I “heart” Scrabble.”

            Another insight: not playing in the Nationals yet following the Nationals is kind of a Rorschach test that reinforces the fact that there are people you (or at least I) dislike. There were people I was rooting for, especially in the division I would have been playing in—I’m glad they both finished in the top six. (The fact that I wasn’t playing did make it easier to be generous of spirit.) There were people I was rooting against. These included anyone under thirty; people who had previously whomped me (why does spell-checker not accept “whomped”? Fuck you, spell-checker) by getting all of the good tiles and then walked away smugly and silently; individuals who say things like “Whew. Almost lost that one” at the end of a game; and players who berate their bad luck during a game by muttering “unbelievable.” (I’ve been guilty of the last one, so I guess I must not like myself.)

            As for the books I read….One was a novel called The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine that has to do with dogs, romance, and urban living.  (Though not about romance among dogs.) It’s very readable in terms of plot, but the point of view is all over the place. I reread Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which wasn’t quite as dazzling the second time around.  Also—a very depressing but well written book of short stories with the great title The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men by Adam Prince. And, finally, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, by an author whose first name is Bich but is pronounced Bic and whose last name I don’t remember and am too lazy to look up.  It’s an engaging memoir about growing up Vietnamese-American in Michigan.

            Speaking of books, I’m waiting for someone to write a novel about Scrabble. I haven’t read Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets (not to be confused with Game of Thrones), but I have it on my nightstand. I don’t think it has much to do with tournaments, though.  I would love to see a novel about Scrabble tournaments, especially the Nationals. So many interesting things happen—people fall in love, make friends, make enemies, learn important truths about themselves. All this in addition to winning and losing and making great plays and blundering and cheating and swearing

            The novel could then be turned into a movie, kind of like Qwerty but with more realistic Scrabble depictions. I liked Qwerty, once I got over the fact that it’s not so much a movie about Scrabble, but rather a film that uses Scrabble to reveal character and provide a mechanism to move along the plot.  The characters are likeable, the actors don’t overact, and it’s refreshing to see a woman (even though she is under thirty) do so well in the Scrabble world.

            Yes, I’m aware of the film’s flaws. The finalists in the big Scrabble tournament play obvious phonies, including three and four letter phonies. They rarely bingo. And, most egregiously, they use the blank for no extra points. Also, the television “commentators” who are analyzing the game make a big deal of the importance of defense in Scrabble. Moments later we are shown very open boards with ample triple-triples opportunities.

            Maybe I’ll write a novel about Scrabble—about competition, the complex nature of human interactions, and the perplexity and wonderfulness of words.  If I’m offered enough money, I’ll do the screenplay as well.  The movie would star Bette Midler as me—the way I am now.  The younger me would be played by Ellen Barkin.  The character based on Marty would be played by Harrison Ford. The younger Marty would be played by Harrison Ford with youth-enhancing make-up.

             Players who don’t follow the rules or who beat me too often in real life would be played by the following: Steve Buscemi, Camilla Parker-Bowles, Danny DeVito, Snooki, Rosie O’Donnell, the guy who played the Russian villain on the television drama 24, and the shark on Jaws.

In the movie I would win most of my games. Closeups would reveal a pair of youthful, perfectly manicured hands putting down bingo after fabulous bingo: outbitch, bagworm, quetzal, reradiate. Of course, Marty would bingo as well: atonies, retinas, banters.

Hey, it’s my movie.

 

 

 

Vegas

It seems odd to be in Las Vegas and not playing in the Nationals, to sleep in as my husband rushes out the door for Day 1, to read a pleasurable novel about New Yorkers and their dogs instead of studying my high probability six-to-make-eights.It feels strange to feel relaxed instead of anxious.

I made the decision not to play several months ago.  I knew I had to write a paper for the Baltic Studies conference in Estonia in June and that I wanted to spend time in Helsinki sightseeing as well.  I knew that my autumn semester would be busy: new classes, new committees, paper and essay deadlines.  In between the conference and the beginning of school in mid-August, I was hoping to accomplish the following: finish my memoir about love and Scrabble, continue walking three to five miles a day, get over my fear of flying through the process of systematic desensitization, prepare for classes, clean out my closets, and learn Finnish.

 And because I take Scrabble seriously—last year I studied for the Nationals and did quite well—I did not want to be put in the position of wondering whether OUTGNAW is valid (it is), whether HIC takes an s (it doesn’t), and what my mnemonic is for ORGIES (HOT MONOGLOT PORN.) 

I could have just stayed home in Charleston, but I get lonely without someone to argue with.

Also, I haven’t been to Vegas since I was in sixth grade; I wanted to see how much it had changed. I was twelve when my parents decided to take a cross-country trip from Chicago to California. My memories of Sin City are vivid and glamorous. My parents chose to spring for a hotel room instead of camping in our flimsy tent. The hotel room had a color television. My parents left my sister and me in the hotel room with the color television while they went out gambling. I remember jumping up and down on the big hotel bed the minute they left and then watching some forbidden show on the wonderful TV. 

I can visualize the Las Vegas of my sixth-grade trip: a long street with brightly colored lights forming pictures of palm trees, flamingos, and an Aladdin’s lamp. I see my father driving past the long street with brightly colored lights, my sister asking, “Dad, are you and mom going to see some strippers?” My father ignored the question.

I walked down Las Vegas Boulevard yesterday.  It seems the city has shifted in the past forty-five years or so, though the hotel concierge reassured me that the “old town” still exists just a few miles away.  This “new” Las Vegas was frightening; monolithic buildings connected by walkways, people walking around looking dazed or anxious or sad, huge billboards of Donnie and Marie. There were smaller, sadder billboards for entertainers I thought were dead, such as Rich Little and Dion.

Cigarette smoke mingling with gasoline fumes was the prevailing smell on the streets.  The 110-degree temperature didn’t do much to enhance the quality of the Las Vegas air.

I don’t belong here, I said to myself. I don’t drink and I don’t gamble.  I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Arc de Triumphe, the real one, not the one with Gordon Ramsay’s larger-than-life face super-imposed on it.  I’ve been to Venice and even to Luxor, Egypt. 

Maybe I should gamble. Maybe I’d like Vegas more.  But I just don’t think Vegas is a good place to BEGIN gambling.  I couldn’t even get in through the door of one of the casinos. It was one of those revolving doors and was revolving too slowly for my taste, so I gave it a little push, which stopped it from going anywhere.  A girl who couldn’t have been more than seven informed me sternly that I didn’t need to DO anything, that it revolved on its OWN.  Once inside I was confused by all of the machines. I wasn’t sure whether I could just put money in or whether I had to get special coins. I was too embarrassed to ask.

I did get some good writing done today, but it was slow going at first. I sat around the hotel room of our very elegant hotel, drinking coffee, looking at the planes landing, amazed at their grace and precision and the fact that not one of them crashed. I got up to sharpen some pencils but then realized that I write on a computer.  I spent an hour reworking two sentences.

What made me think that putting words down on paper in a coherent and interesting manner was easier than playing Scrabble?

 

Interview with Downtown Lisa Brown

Lisa Brown is a very smart and sassy young lady.  She personifies sass.  She used to live in Charleston, Illinois where she pretty much ran the Study Abroad program at Eastern Illinois University. She played in our Scrabble Club. She is pretty much perfect except for her unreasonable attachment to the Cleveland Indians, who, by some crazy fluke, are doing well. 

Can you tell us how you came to play Scrabble? Did you play as a girl?

I played many clandestine games of “Cuss Word Scrabble” at sleepovers with my cousin Teresa.  We played words like “shithead” and “penis” and shushed each other when we giggled too loudly.  (Yes, “penis” was a cuss word.)

 Unfortunately, this later worked against me, as I played the word DUMBASS* in a game against your husband.  To my chagrin, he successfully challenged it and then proceeded to tell everyone in the Champaign-Urbana Barnes and Noble that he challenged my dumb ass right off the board.  The barista at Starbucks nodded politely.

 When I first met you, I thought you were a really sweet, gentle person.  That all changed when I first played you in Scrabble. Just kidding.  Kind of.  I still thought of you as sweet and gentle, but I also saw this determined “I am nobody’s bitch” side to you.  Am I projecting?

I have a hyper-competitive nature, which is kind of embarrassing, particularly since I have a vagina and I’m told that people with vaginas aren’t supposed to be competitive.  I have to really rein it in at baby showers, and outwardly I think I do a decent job.  Internally, though, I’m screaming, “Hands off that plumeria-scented lotion, bitch! That’s going to MY house after I own all of you in the name-the-celebrity-baby game!”

 You’ve moved up quickly in the Scrabble ranks from the time you played all those phonies against me.  I suspect performance-enhancing drugs.  Care to comment?

No.

I know this may sound trite, but do you have favorite words?  Favorite anagrams?

My favorite word to play is “yon” because my husband’s name is Yon.  My stomach gets all aflutter when I can play “yon”.  In fact, sometimes I even play it when it’s not the best play.

My name anagrams to Slow Brain.  That’s pretty special.

 What do you remember from your first tournament?

I remember being in awe of people rated 1000.  It’s kind of like when you’re three years old and 21 sounds really, really old.

Tell us about your wonderful husband.  Does he play Scrabble?

My wonderful husband thinks Scrabble is a horrendous waste of time.  “You’re a wonderful writer!” he says.  “You could be writing a book!  Instead, you sit around with your friends saying, ‘Oh, look, I played P-A-B.  That’s a word.”

What I should say: “Honey, you’re right.  I’m going to quit Scrabble and get started on my novel.

What I actually say: “No, P-A-B isn’t valid, but it does anagram to B-A-P, which is valid.” Obviously, my husband is much smarter than me.

If you could play Scrabble with any person in the world, living or dead, who would be your choice and why?

I would totally play Scrabble with Jesus, but I’d make it Cuss Word Scrabble because Jesus doesn’t cuss, so I’d win.

 What would I find in your refrigerator right now?

 Injera.  This is kind of a big deal.  It is impossible to purchase injera in northeast Ohio, so we just stocked up when we went to DC a couple of weeks ago.  My Ethiopian husband is cooking tonight, so that injera is soon to be in my belly.

 Speaking of which, whenever I mention injera on Facebook, some smartass Collins player (probably but not definitely Chris Lipe) always posts INJERA# on my status.  STOP IT!  If a lack of injera hasn’t caused me to move out of my state, it’s also not going to cause me to move out of my dictionary.

 Rumor has it you’ve traveled to every country in the world. Do you have a favorite?

Certainly Canada as it’s the only country to which I can travel and still play TWL.  Best part of playing Scrabble in Canada: at the end of a game, I sometimes get to hear my opponent say, “13 and oat!”  It’s so adorable, I almost don’t even mind when my opponent goes “oat” while I’ve got an X and a V on my rack.

 If someone wrote a biography about you, what might the title to be?

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling.  Then maybe someone would buy it.