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.