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.