Playing Scrabble with the Buddha

Marty hands me The Best American Sports Writing of 2003.

“Read this,” he says, and points to an article titled “Good Karma, Bad Golf.”

It’s about a Tibetan lama, Kunga Rinpoche, who is the reincarnation of an eleventh-century monk and is also a good friend of the Dalai Lama. What makes him worthy of an appearance in a sports book is that he is an avid golfer. The article describes his composed, accepting attitude towards the game. He is a mediocre golfer, but never gets angry, never complains, never swears.

“Is there a lesson some of us might take from the lama?” Marty asks.

I know where Marty is going with this, so I do what I usually do when I don’t want to hear something: I zone out and enter my vivid fantasy life.  I imagine I am playing Scrabble with the Dalai Lama. No, make that the Buddha. We are sitting under the bodhi tree (“bodhi” has been recently added to the Collins dictionary ONLY), a gentle breeze blowing. The Buddha exchanges five tiles—all vowels—and pulls five more vowels out of the bag.

“All of life is suffering,” he says.

Sometimes I imagine I am playing Scrabble with Jesus.  I got the idea from a priest who suggested in a sermon that one way to feel closer to Christ is to imagine ourselves in ordinary, everyday situations with him: taking a walk, having coffee at Starbucks, discussing the Cubs’ chances of a World Series.  It is much easier to imagine myself playing Scrabble with Jesus than it is discussing the Cubs. First of all, Jesus would never cheer for the Cubs. Secondly, I think that if Jesus lived today, let’s say as a Jewish teenager growing up in Skokie, he might very well be playing Scrabble. Jews have long traditions of literacy and historical respect for education that make it much more likely that a young Jesus would be studying six-to-make-seven word lists than watching WWE Wrestling.

Suffice it to say, Jesus never cheats at Scrabble. And he never goes over his clock. However, he is not—spoiler alert—always a gracious loser. Personally, I don’t think he should complain about getting stuck with the Q, especially since qi is now an acceptable Scrabble word.  And he wins ninety-five percent of the time. (Really, it should be more like eighty, but I have this Catholic guilt thing going on.)

The Pope is a good loser even though he’s a really really bad speller.  My games with the Pope: Daiva—552, Pope—175; Daiva—623, Pope—127.  You get the picture.

George W. Bush is also a bad speller and, surprisingly, so is Nancy Pelosi.

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) never wins at word games. Ever. Probably because he’s illiterate. The Koran came to him in a series of revelations when the Angel Gabriel (no relation to my husband) recited the verses out loud.  The Prophet is just not willing to let an angel whisper the words to him in Scrabble. He considers it cheating.

He’s pretty darned good at chess, though.




Queen of Spider Solitaire

I’ve cut back on sleeping pills. And I’m proud of that. I was taking them every other night, not a huge Amy Winehouse dose, but enough to knock me out pretty quickly. This was under doctor’s supervision after months of excruciating insomnia brought on partly by menopause. The doctor had started me on Ambien, but then I started to feel sluggish and moody, even more sluggish and moody than I do without sleeping aids, so I switched to Sonata.  (Note to Self: Check out careers in pill naming. Possible names: Credenza. No, make that Cadenza. Mysteria. Ah, that’s it. Mysteria, because who really knows what’s in those little tablets.)

Quitting Sonata wasn’t as hard as I thought.  I did go through a period of rebound insomnia and some pretty awful nightmares—I dreamt that Illinois legislators were trying to cut teachers’ pensions and that the Kardashians were still on television and that the Tigers were catching up to the White Sox in the American League Central Division. Giving up pills was easier, though, than forgoing my daily game of Spider Solitaire on the internet (MSN Zone), not the lame-ass single suit some people play, but four suit—Spider Solitaire at its most challenging. The problem with Spider Solitaire is that although there’s some skill involved, there’s no way to measure improvement. In addition, there are no non-internet-based Spider Solitaire tournaments where I can show off my expertise and win prizes and the admiration of fellow players: “Oooh, there goes Daiva Markelis, the Queen of Spider Solitaire.”

I’m a little ashamed of my solitaire addiction.  I got suckered into the “most addictive game online” subheading, which should have been a flag as red as a Lithuanian beetroot. I ignored “most addictive,” thinking it applied to all those suckers out there with no self-control, not to an enlightened, disciplined person like myself.

Spider Solitaire is addictive because it operates under the principles of intermittent reinforcement. If you’ve taken even a basic psychology class, you know about intermittent and continuous reinforcement. Under continuous reinforcement, a rat receives a food pellet every time it hits the lever. Under intermittent reinforcement, the rat might be rewarded every tenth or fifteenth time. This doesn’t stop the rat from furiously hitting the level every chance it gets in the hope of a tasty morsel.

In Spider Solitaire, the human rat hits the start button to get ten cards face up. The human rat tries to get rid of a suite of cards by ordering them from king down to ace. The full suite then disappears, making an appealing whoosh sound. If the cards are non-synchronous—four aces out of the ten cards, for example—the human rat must then hit the draw button to acquire new cards.  Very often the HR knows from the very first set of cards whether or not a particular game will end in success. The fact that most games end in failure keeps the HR pressing and pressing the new game button until victory is finally assured.

So— I win one game and lose the next seven and then get really pissed off and am determined to play until I win again. The Good Job! message that flashes across the screen after every hard-fought win reinforces my behavior. “Am I so easily bought?” I sometimes ask myself. The answer is yes. Or partly yes. The makers of my favorite version of Spider Solitaire wisely theorized that Good Job! is more gratifying than Congratulations. After I see the Good Job! I feel as if I’ve spent the day pruning bushes and weeding in the garden and can now look on with self-satisfaction at the fruits of my labor.

In Europe, Solitaire is known as Patience, because you are drained of every last particle of patience during the game. Solitaire/Patience was probably invented in Germany or Scandinavia, according to Wikipedia. Nineteenth century Germans used Solitaire to predict the future.  If the cards on any given morning seemed favorable—that is, easy to line up —then the day would be auspicious. If a player couldn’t finish a game after a few tries, then no important decisions would be made that day. I believe it is this kind of progressive, rational thinking that eventually led to German inventions such as the Zeppelin, the Bunsen burner, the Mercedes-Benz, and coffee filters.

Most of my friends don’t know about my Spider Solitaire addiction. They will now, of course, which is one reason I’m writing about it. Making things public has always worked for me in terms of lessening undesirable behaviors. And, in the end, playing a game based largely on luck is about as productive and fulfilling as watching The Bachelorette. (Or anything with the Kardashians.)

Some of my friends think I’m addicted to Scrabble. I’m not addicted to Scrabble in part because there is so much skill in the game that with enough practice and study one can achieve a respectable level of measurable expertise. Scrabble is one of my enthusiasms, along with baseball and knitting. Speaking of baseball, getting pleasure from following a sports team is based in part on intermittent reinforcement. Would I watch the White Sox if I knew they’d win every single one of their games? You bet I would.  But I’d get less enjoyment than if they lost some really close games to the Yankees but then went on to sweep the Rangers and then lost to Kansas City only to come back in the ninth inning in a crucial win against Detroit.

I enjoy Scrabble the same way I do baseball and knitting.  I love baseball because there’s always so much more to learn about the game—obscure rules, history, statistics. All of this in addition to feeling as if I belong to a very select and important group of discerning fans. In knitting, I move on to more complex patterns and projects every year. I enjoy similar feelings of mastery in Scrabble.  My vocabulary grows and my strategy sharpens the more I play.

One reason I decided to cut back on the sleeping pills was because they were affecting my Scrabble game. Once before a tournament I took a Sonata instead of my daily antidepressant. I was sleepy AND depressed.

I like the social aspect of Scrabble—travelling to tournaments, meeting new people, playing (and preferably beating) old friends and current husbands.

Solitaire is called Solitaire for a reason.


Why I Will Never Be A Top Ranked Scrabble Player

Friends who don’t know much about Scrabble think I’m an expert player.  I compete in tournaments and help my husband run our Scrabble Club.  Plus, I’m a word person, a writer and a professor of English. I’ve picked up an eclectic vocabulary through voluminous reading.

“You know a lot of fancy words,” my friends tell me.

While it’s true writers are often drawn to the game—Vladimir Nabokov’s Scrabble board is prominently displayed at the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg, and Graham Greene’s Scrabble score sheets have been found between the pages of a volume of Kierkegaard—the ranks of expert Scrabble players, those with ratings over 1600, are filled with mathematicians and computer programmers and proof-readers, men (mostly) with razor-sharp powers of concentration, aptitudes for quickly calculating probabilities, and excellent memories for words.

Extraordinary focus is essential for finding the best move, in part because tournament Scrabble, like tournament chess, is timed. You have twenty-five minutes to make all your moves.  Spend too much time on any given play and you run the risk of incurring a ten-point penalty for every extra minute over the clock. While minding time, you also have to be aware of what letters have been played in order to calculate what tiles might be in the bag and on the opponent’s rack. An expert player will run through countless word combinations before deciding whether to block a certain spot or open another, whether to play off three tiles or four, whether to keep an X or an E or an R.

I do not have extraordinary focus, in either life or Scrabble. I will wander parking lots for hours, searching for my ancient forest green Geo-Prizm, weaving between vehicles, gazing out into the distance at rows of alien autos. On days when the meds are doing their job, when I’ve had enough sleep and a proper breakfast, I can keep track of all of the tiles until the very end of the game. Such days are rare. Most of the time, my opponent will have seven tiles on his or her rack, there will be two or three tiles left in the bag, and I will have fifteen unaccounted-for letters.

Since offense in Scrabble is largely built upon the concept of the bingo—using all seven letters to score an additional fifty points—and since there are over a hundred thousand seven and eight letter words in the English language, having an excellent memory is a huge advantage. I am not talking about the recall of faces or names or lines from famous poems, but of knowing that ISOLINE and INOSINE and ISOTONE and INOSITE are acceptable words, but ISOTINE is not. Top Scrabble players can look at words once or twice and they become entrenched in memory, nestled in the folds of the cerebral cortex between the section regulating foreign profanities and the sector responsible for retaining World Series statistics.

My memory leans towards what psychologists term the episodic. I remember a classmate named Linda mispronouncing divorce as die-vorce in eight-grade reading class; Arvydas Zygas laughed out loud but then went on to mispronounce Ole Miss as Olay Miss.  (I don’t, however, remember what reading selection included both divorce and Ole Miss.)  And I’ve retained an image of a self-assured and very blond young man I had a hopeless crush on slipping on a patch of ice in front of University Hall. I can see him doing an awkward little Irish step dance before crumbling to the ground, an act that effectively ended my infatuation. The name of the boy, however, remains a mystery.

Of course, memory will only take you so far in competitive Scrabble.  Top players get where they are through obsessive study. Activities such as reading and writing just get in the way of serious rote memorization, as do family, friends, and careers. “Scrabble is my life. Everything else is just a game,” reads one popular T-shirt. A woman once wrote to the Scrabble News describing how she’d wallpapered her house with pages of the Official Scrabble Dictionary so she could study them. My husband, voted nicest patrol boy in grade school, occasionally mentions that spending time in jail would give him lots of time to study words.

Most players memorize stems—highly synchronous six and seven letter combinations to which letters are added to form words. For example, almost every letter of the alphabet goes with  SATINE: SATINE plus an A makes ENTASIA and TAENIAS; SATINE plus a B equals BANTIES and BASINET, and so on.  A beginning tournament player might know up to ten stems; an intermediate player, a hundred or so; most experts not only know all of the stems (there are hundreds) but also quickly move beyond them to study low probability bingos, words such as LOCOFOCO and DIVAGATE and OSMUNDA.

In order to remember which letters go with specific stems, players turn to mnemonics.  The King of Scrabble Mnemonics is Mike Baron, whose Scrabble Wordbook includes not only high probability word stems, but also useful phrases that help players remember the letters that make words when added to the stems.  For example, Baron’s mnemonic for the stem NEROLI is PART ROSE, a fitting memory aid, since neroli oil smells sweet. The words formed by adding the letters P-A-R-T-O-S-E are PROLINE, ALIENOR, AILERON, LORINER, RETINOL, LOONIER, NEROLIS, and ELOINER.

Most of the mnemonic phrases in the Scrabble Wordbook read like headlines or advertisements in some absurd alternative newspaper: WIMP KVETCHING ABOUT WIFE for SNIDER; SPOCKS FOXY VW BUG HOLDS TO FORM for ALIENS; TUMOR? PAGE SKILLFUL DOCTOR for LESION.

Sometimes I make up my own mnemonics.  I came up with SOLID, OBLIVIOUS, PITIFUL DITZ for SOLUTE after my friend Roxane Gay played SOLUTES at the Champaign Scrabble club and I challenged it and felt like a solid oblivious pitiful ditz.

Some of the mnemonics are X-rated and have to do with my husband. They cannot be reproduced here.

In addition to countless stems, I’ve memorized all of the seven letter “out” words, the seven and eight letter “over” words, all words beginning with mis and anti.  And I’ve finally got it into my head which of the following take s’s: OURIE, OORIE, OORALI, HOURI, AALII, NAOI, OURARI, LOUIE, and LOOIE.

My willingness to study has kept me out of the beginner group of Scrabble players, some of whom have been beginners for decades.

Perhaps if I studied all the time I could become an expert Scrabble player.

Probably not. And the truth is, the idea of studying all of the time, of even studying a lot, depresses me. I’d have to give up watching the White Sox and shopping online. My teaching would suffer; I’d skimp on student paper comments, resorting to one sentence clichés: “Nice job!” and “Thesis undeveloped” and “Ending needs work.”  My list of Important Books to Read would drop from 73 to 0.   The enjoyment I take in music would be diminished.  Listening to Mozart’s Requiem or Brian Eno’s Music for Airports or even The Pogues or The Cowboy Junkies while recalling the mnemonic for INSEAM—CARE FOR A GOOD JOKE? HOW TALL HE SEAMS!—results in a less than satisfying musical experience.

Perhaps most importantly, I couldn’t justify the two or three hours I spend every morning  in the activity that gives me the deepest pleasure of all— arranging words on a page so that they say something meaningful. I wouldn’t be able to write about what childhood traumas have made me such a bad competitor, why competition in a marriage can be so destructive (but not always), why games so often serve as a barometer of culture.

I wouldn’t be able to write about Scrabble.










(Note: I started this a few months ago. Set it aside and forgot about it.)

A few hours before the flight to the Dallas Open Scrabble Tournament, Marty is organizing and reorganizing t-shirts, vitamins, lucky pens, and protein bars as the washing machine spins a load of necessary socks.

“Where’s my vinegar?” he yells.

The vinegar is always in the same place, wedged between the soy sauce and the olive oil on the second shelf of the kitchen cupboard.

I bring him the bottle, which he swaddles in a towel as if it were a baby. Vinegar, according to Marty, helps with memory and digestion, prevents headaches, and fights fatigue.

A worn green gym bag contains items deemed too important to be packed in the big circa-1972 suitcase: color-coded index cards, special Scrabble tiles, and the clock used for keeping time in games.

The latter has caused delays at airport security.

“What is this?” a guard once asked, holding up a rectangular box with two analog clock faces.

“It’s my Sam Timer,” Marty said. “See how it ticks when you press the button. In Scrabble, every player gets twenty five minutes to complete all the plays, so a game is rarely more than fifty minutes, though sometimes players go over the limit. I once took too long with one play and lost the game.  It’s called a Sam Timer because the manufacturer is a Scrabble player named Sam Kantimathi.  Sam Timer is a take-off on sand-timer, the little hour-glass that comes with the games.”

The guard waved Marty through. It worries me that the individuals hired to safeguard our airports so easily dismiss people with ticking devices. I realize most people see Scrabble as an innocent, harmless pastime, unlike, say, automatic weapon collecting, but even terrorists might conceivably play board games.

Another time a guard saw the equipment and, after discovering that Marty was a championship Scrabble player, decided to quiz him: “What word has three letters that are repeated three times consecutively?”

“Well, there’s a word like atlatl, which means boomerang. But that’s only two repetitions.”

“The letters are back to back,” the guard explained.

“How many letters in the word itself?”

“Eleven.”  He paused dramatically. “A lot of people don’t get this one.”

“Hmm. Eleven letter words are tricky. In Scrabble …”

“It has to do with credits and debits. Money stuff.”


“All right. Now you can tell people you learned something at the airport.”


“Hey, should I take along another set of tiles?” Marty now asks. “The reds ones with white typeface?”

A non-Scrabble friend once asked what’s wrong with the simple wooden tiles that come with the game.

A serious player would no more dream of using the wooden squares than Lebron James would consider playing basketball in Keds. Plastic Braille-proof tiles are the only kind allowed in tournament Scrabble. You can get a set of double-injected molded tiles from a company called Protiles for twenty-seven dollars and fifty cents. They come in a variety of colors with names such as Plum Crazy Purple, Agave Blue, Taxi Cab Yellow, and Café au Lait. The Protiles website claims the tiles “are pleasing to the touch and have a textured finish guaranteed not to reflect the glare of overhead lighting at any angle.”

Marty, however, is loyal to Sam Kantimathi and therefore plays with his PermaTiles, which last forever and, as the website states, “Fit every Scrabble board ever made in the known universe!”

Speaking of boards, Marty prefers playing on Sam Boards; they are round, sturdy, and easy to twirl around when it’s your turn to make a move. A correlation exists between the skill level of a player and the type of board he or she uses; the top-ranked players, in general, favor simple, non-decorated boards. Lower and mid-level players will pay a Scrabble artisan to cement the regular board onto a large wooden or plastic circle, then adorn the peripheral area with bright little mosaic tiles, or fancy fabric, or pictures of their cats.

Some players go overboard with boards. I once played a man whose board background was a huge cross surrounding by flames. An American flag was superimposed over this, as if Jesus were getting ready to play George W. Bush in Scrabble. (Jesus would have clobbered the bejeezus out of Bush.)

No respectable player uses the flimsy burgundy tile bag that comes with the game. At tournaments there are tiles bags made of velvet, fur, corduroy, bags intricately embroidered with flowers, musical notes, and Scrabble tiles.  My favorite has the phrase “I love this game,” embroidered on one side. The other side says “I hate this game.”

Marty’s tile bags haven’t been washed in years. There is a particularly ugly one made of brown faux fur that looks matted and stringy. I call it the Dead Otter Bag and refuse to draw tiles from it.  I glance into Marty’s green carry-on and see that he has, indeed, packed the Dead Otter Bag.

“Do you think this old Bears t-shirt looks scary?” he asks.

Marty’s ideal Scrabble wardrobe consist of shirts that are either scary or distracting, or, ideally, both: Chinese dragons, grizzlies.

He holds up another shirt, puts it down, picks up another and looks in the mirror, fussier than a sixteen your old girl preparing for her first date.

“We need to get going, Marty,” I whine.

“We have plenty of time.”

“They say you should be at the airport at least one hour before a domestic flight.”

“They they they,” he drones.

“I won’t have time to get my Cinnabon.”

I hate flying. I hate everything about flying with the exception of the Cinnabons found at most large airports. I hate going through security since I’m always subjected to the full-body scan (whereas some people with ticking devices get off without consequences of any kind.) I hate the cramped airplane seats and the dismal airline food. Most of all, however, I hate the take-off, the being in the sky part, and the landing. When I drank heavily, which was pretty much the entire third and fourth decade of my life, flying was not such an ordeal. When I first quit, I was a nervous wreck, constantly pressing the call button at the slightest noise or unexpected movement: “Excuse me, stewardess. How long do you think this turbulence is going to last?”

“We’re not going through turbulence at the moment.”

Over the years, I’ve learned to handle flying in a more mature and reasonable manner. I know that the seats by the wings are best because turbulence is felt least in that section of the plane. I know that the greatest danger to a plane in flight is not turbulence, but lightning and pilot error. I realize that airports have state-of-the-art lightning detection equipment.  If I have the chance, I like to say hello to the pilots to make sure their breaths are not reeking of alcohol.

Most importantly, I have my equipment: Sennheiser noise-reduction earphones, expensive but worth it; IPod with calming music: Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Smetana’s Ma Vlast, and anything by Bach; memory foam pillow; rosary; Dramamine; and valiums.

I take a Dramamine and a valium as we leave for the airport—Marty’s driving is often turbulence-producing.  I put on some music and close my eyes.  There is no rest for the anxious, however; Marty insists on anagramming.

“What do we find in the letters RGTANESI?”

“Angriest,” I answer.

“Yes, angriest, but also astringe, gantries, ganister, granites, ingrates, rangiest.”


We get to the airport with no time to spare.

My dreams of a Cinnabon vanish as we stand in line to check our baggage.

To compensate, I take another valium.

At security, I am, once again, required to undergo a full-body span, spreading my legs apart and holding my hands above my head like a convict as Marty breezes through with his Sam Timer.

Once inside the plane, I connect my IPod to the Sennhauser device, click to my favorite Bach fugue, click on my seat-belt, place the memory foam pillow over the seat-belt, argue with the stewardess who says she needs to see the seat belt. “And while you’re at it,” she adds, “no electrical devices until the pilot says it’s okay.”

I sigh and debate whether another valium is in order. Marty frowns as he sees me searching for my pillbox.

“I will be your valium,” he says as the plane rises.

I hold onto him, clutching his arm, breathing into his neck. “I just want you to know I love you very much,” I murmur. “And if anything should happen, you have always…”

Marty cuts me short. “What do you mean ‘If anything should happen.’”

“I want you to know that I love you and your Dead Otter Bag and your vinegar and your special pens.”

Once the plane is at cruising altitude I relax, entering a fugue-like state. The valium is working, the pillow is comforting, the music fills my head, drowning out the low whirring of the plane. There is no turbulence, yet—but I take out the rosary just in case.

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” I murmur.

Marty has his own litany, which he follows with his finger on a page marked Unusual Five Letter Words: facia, faena, fanga, fatwa, feria, folia, fossa.




Welcome to The Nervous Rack

“The unexamined SCRABBLE© life is not worth living.”

– Socrates

Scrabble will teach you things about yourself you don’t necessarily want to know: that you’re a poor speller although you have a doctorate in English; that your personality borders on the obsessive; that you hate losing. I mean, really hate losing. Especially to your husband. And to lower rated players. And to higher rated players who are not very nice people. Playing competitive Scrabble is like carrying around a barometer that measures emotional well being and psychological stability. Very often my barometer readings suggest thunderstorms lurking on the horizon.

I brought up the idea of a Scrabble blog with my writing group, five women who teach English at Eastern Illinois University. Between us, we’ve published seven books. Four of us have played in Scrabble tournaments. My friends thought it was a great idea, especially if I focused on aspects of the game that are more personal or quirky: the nature of competition, the vagaries of the English language, Scrabble dreams, the people who play the game in our club here in Charleston, Illinois.

We thought of names for the blog.

“How about Scrabble Diva?” I asked.

“Anything diva is so yesterday,” said Roxane Gay, the most famous member of the group. Roxane blogs for the Wall Street Journal and will have a short story appearing in Best Short Stories of 2012.

“Scrabble Goddess?”  I pondered.

I’m not really a Scrabble goddess. I’m an intermediate level player with no delusions or burning desire to be an expert. Robin Pollock Daniel is a Scrabble goddess.

“How about Barely Above Average?” I continued.

“Too clunky,” said Angela.

Angela is a solid Scrabble player. When she first came to our club she was barely above average, totally not getting the hang of pyramiding high-point tiles. She is now a force to be reckoned with.

“How about something with rack?” said brilliant Ruth, who doesn’t play Scrabble, which is probably just as well for the rest of us.

“How about The Nervous Rack?” piped in Mary, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She knew Raymond Carver and John Irving and a bunch of other really famous writers, and probably got drunk with them.

Mary and I have a lot in common. We both love pretty expensive things. Make that pretty, expensive things. We tend to get morose when we lose at Scrabble, which can make for an interesting situation since we often play each other at the club. We are both getting better at losing, however. We just have to remind ourselves that there are other things in life, such as writing and friendship. And going to spas. We love the idea of a combined Scrabble/spa tournament getaway: massage in the morning, followed by a few games of Scrabble. Then a mani/pedi (these are unacceptable Scrabble words, at least for now), a few more games of Scrabble, Dead Sea mud wrap.

We can take it one step further. We can have massages while we’re playing Scrabble. The manicures might be difficult, though. And we’d have to be really careful with the wrap. Don’t want mud on the tiles.