Scrabble is Like High School

Note: This is another guest blog. Danielle Rogner, a student in my creative nonfiction class at Eastern, wrote this as a kind of mini-essay to add to her final portfolio. She’s a fantastic writer–I’m trying to convince her to go on for an MFA in creative writing. And to join our Scrabble club.

Scrabble is Like High School

L’s are the cheerleaders who wear their uniforms on Fridays and are invited to every party. They are almost always welcomed and appreciated for their upbeat personalities and the positive potential they bring to any social situation. Despite the fact that they can memorize the names of every OPI nail-polish shade but can’t remember the first column of elements on the periodic table, they somehow become every teacher’s favorite. But ask anyone, even another L, and they will tell you that if you have too many of them at once, you’re at a loss.

O’s are the band geeks. Sometimes they walk around in pairs, clinking their clarinet cases as they step in sync with the beat emanating from their headphones. When an O with a tuba steps into the hallway, everyone makes way, trying to negotiate a new path around. O’s are generally not hated—just usually ignored. Unless they are really good. Then they are put on display in front of everyone and praised for their talent.

R’s are the jocks. Everyone pretends to love them. Their names are scrawled onto windows with bright paint, printed on the backs of their girlfriends’ t-shirts, and announced over the loudspeakers at the games. Really, they aren’t any more special than any other pimply, insecure teenager, but for some reason, when you pick up an R, you’re pleased.

Z’s are the AP kids who huddle over their advanced calculus textbooks and feverishly try to squeeze an impressive amount of information onto 3×5 inch notecards. They are the social outcasts—the kids who never seem to be wanted except for when a teacher introduces a dreaded group project. They can be awkward and challenging to work with, but can be easily ignored on the edge of the tile rack until you need to take advantage of them. If you are lucky enough to get an AP kid in your group, they suddenly glimmer with the radiance of a Triple Letter Score.

S’s are the female athletes. Some are competitive and play to release their aggression and teen angst. They will get in your face on the field or court and stir up trouble when they assume they belong in the center of attention. Some S’s are well-rounded perfectionists, trying to add a sport onto their long list of bests. They are responsible, generous, and can usually attach themselves comfortably onto any group. The rest just have a genuine love for the game and don’t care if they are on the starting lineup. They willingly wait on the bench until they are called into play. They may just be add-ons, but they are happy to help.

Q’s and U’s are the hopeless romantics. They are always together. Usually, they can be found at a table in the back of the library gazing into each other’s eyes, or less discreetly making out in the middle of the hallway. Most students, annoyed by the incessant display of affection and slobber, simply push them to the side and move along.

X’s are the art freaks who sneak out the unguarded emergency exits to smoke weed between English and economics. They are usually left alone and given weird looks as they draw peace signs and dead trees on each other with ketchup packets. No one really knows what to do with the X’s.

E’s are everyone else. They are favored, kind, flexible, and almost always welcomed. They are the one you go to when you need someone you can count on. They are the best friend. They are the “get along with everyone” type. They are exceptionally average.


Why Don’t We Just Play Bingo?

Note from Daiva: The following entry is written by my husband, Marty Gabriel. I am swamped with work and haven’t had much time to play Scrabble, including Facebook Scrabble (sorry if you’ve been waiting 28 days for my move.) Marty will be a guest blogger. He is an expert at the game and is also pretty insightful and funny. I’m proud at his attempt at blogging, and even prouder that he’s mastered the fewer-less distinction.

The Elmhurst Thanksgiving Scrabble tourney is over and I’m receiving the first place envelope containing $250 that goes to the champion of the Collins division.  I’ve won my last three games to finish with an 8-4 record and am surprised to have surpassed the early leader in the division, who has ended with four straight losses. I’m happy, but somewhat embarrassed about this unexpected outcome. After suffering through a couple of shellackings earlier in the day, I’d been careful to complement the victors, Melissa Routzahn and Bill Rexhausen, on their well-played games, but I’d also bemoaned a sustained period of exceptionally unlucky drawing spanning nearly fifty games that began in London during the recent World Scrabble Championship. Before my tenth game in Elmhurst, a rematch with Bill, I’d thwacked my tile bag against the wall next to my seat in a semi-comic attempt to knock some luck into it more loudly than I’d intended, causing heads to turn. “I’m amazed and thrilled to have won the tourney, but I know I won’t be getting the sportsmanship award,” I sheepishly admit at the CSW awards ceremony. Melissa likes this remark enough to post it on Facebook.

In London I’d drawn twelve fewer blanks than my opponents in the twenty-four game main portion of the WSC and ten fewer blanks in the fourteen game follow-up tourney for WSC also-rans who hadn’t qualified for the eight player WSC playoff to determine the world champion.  I’d also had fourteen fewer esses in those thirty-eight games. When I grumbled to Daiva about this, she responded, “Yes, and you’ll continue to draw like this the rest of your life.” After I drew just one blank in my first four games at Elmhurst her remark appeared prophetic.

The leave simulator at , the go-to site for serious Scrabble players, lists the true value of a blank at 28 points and the true value of an ess at 8.5 points for international dictionary play (CSW). Each is actually slightly more valuable in CSW than in standard North American dictionary play (TWL). I was very encouraged to have had the eleventh highest scoring average in the WSC, pleased to have finished in 37th place with a 13-11, +446 record in that event, and satisfied to have finished  7-7, +55 in the follow-up, considering my lack of primo tiles. Top rated Nigel Richards, universally acknowledged as the greatest Scrabble player of all time, won the follow-up tourney after shockingly finishing in eleventh place in the marquee event. One can only imagine the kind of tiles he’d endured.

Back in Illinois I’d explained what transpired to my parents, who enjoy following the major tourneys online. My mother suspected foul play. ” What about that Dave Wiegand? How come he never has a bad tourney?” she asked. I explained why Dave is beyond reproach; his annotated games show an extraordinary ability to play nearly flawlessly extremely consistently. And, like Nigel, he’s a good sport.

Good sportsmanship in Scrabble is manifest in many ways: scrupulously following the rules, congratulating an opponent following a loss, being gracious in victory, not disturbing players at other boards, and not complaining about one’s tiles. Former national and world Scrabble champion, Brian Cappelletto, my mentor ten to fifteen years ago, was extremely conscientious about playing properly, unfailingly  gracious in victory or defeat, and appropriately stoic during stretches of poor drawing. He also displayed a keen sense of humor. “Why don’t we just play bingo,” he’d say to players who whined about bad tiles.

Being down twenty-eight blanks over a stretch of three tourneys wouldn’t have elicited a peep from Brian, but he wasn’t oblivious to the role that luck can play in Scrabble. When I asked him if he’d drawn poorly after he’d disappointingly finished fourth at the 1996 NSC in Dallas, he recalled having a stretch of seven straight games without a blank and how he’d been fortunate to have won three of them. He added that winning two out of five such games would be about as well as one could expect to do usually. But he typically disdained conversations about luck. My demeanor has improved over the years, as I’ve tried to emulate Brian, but I’m still prone to vent toward the end of a prolonged drawing drought.

Showing a sense of humor is easier, though, especially when I’m playing an amiable opponent. Following his lopsided win, Bill begins our second game by wishing me good luck. I am taken aback by this and ponder my response. I don’t want to respond in kind because that would be disingenuous. Bill has had good luck already and he’s used it to kick my ass. Now it’s my turn. If Bill was a low-rated and relatively unskilled player and we were playing a mere club game, I might wish him good luck, hoping to have a more competitive and interesting game, but this is different. “I won’t insult you by wishing you good luck,” I say.

At an adjacent board a player chuckles. The player had lost twice to Bill the previous day and posted a somewhat unflattering message on Facebook, regarding his frustration at losing to Bill, a lower rated player. I’d heard about it later that night and told Bill in the morning I thought he was quite underrated and mistakenly disparaged. Bill and I were scheduled to play back-to-back games a couple hours later and I feared emboldening him beforehand, but encouraging him seemed appropriate; I think Brian would have approved.

So my remark has added meaning. To emphasize my point I explain to Bill that because he’s such a good player, I cannot sincerely wish him good luck.

“Let us not come to fisticuffs,” I say instead before elaborating. “I told Dave Wiegand this before we played a game for $3000, the championship game of the 2010 Dallas Open. His response was, ‘Whatever it takes.’”