Thursday, February 3, 2011

Scrabble as Metaphor

I have been playing SCRABBLE online for about 18 months now, and admit that I am a total junkie. It has been fun, maddening, and oddly enough, a great learning experience in a Zen kind of way.

The truth of the matter is, I'm not very good. My vocabulary is good, not great, and my ability to see words from a jumble of letters is definitely lacking. But on I play, usually with people I know or want to get to know, and interestingly enough, I have gotten to know a lot about myself and others, particularly men.

One man I played with (and dated) kept winning and winning and winning with fantastic words I had never heard of. When I finally asked him if he had an amazing vocabulary or was it possible he cheated, he confessed (unembarassedly) that, of course, he used online tools to help him figure out words; that everyone did it, didn't I know? (Scrabble Helper = Viagra?) That I had to ask before he would tell me something like that, that the playing field had never been level from the beginning, was a great indicator of the non-Scrabble relationship.

Another man I played with (and dated - hmm, is there a pattern here?) was honest from the beginning about his desire to win, about his joy in playing with an equal partner, loved talking through his difficulties in the game and had no issue naming a problem he was having. He was like that in person, too - honest with his feelings (even if I didn't like them), comfortable stating his position.

One woman I played with, so gentle in regular life and so fierce a competitor online, was incredibly generous with her skill, pointing out plays (after she had won, of course) giving me tips, and continuing to play with me in spite of the fact that I did not give her stiff competition. I had already suspected she was a mensch; Scrabble proved it so. But in addition, it taught me that the rather one-dimensional picture I had of her was missing so much, and that engaging with someone in a different activity from our normal relationship let me in to a whole new aspect, deepening our relationship.

And then there's me. I have come to see in Scrabble that I often play impulsively, that the desire to make a play overcomes my ability to think through carefully, that once I latch on to a play that seems good, I stop looking at alternatives. I have also seen that if I give it time (one of the great joys of online Scrabble where there is little pressure to make your move), I can see things differently, that new words form where none had previously existed.

I don't think I'll ever be a very good Scrabble player, and recent games on a real board have proven that perhaps I have even gotten worse as my knowledge and experience have grown. But it sure has taught me a lot, and perhaps is my new relationship litmus test!


  1. it took me about three seconds to spell:

    go lisa and got it bad

    love the game, love your article.


  2. Great post, Lisa --

    I caught the Scrabble bug three years ago now when it was Scrabulous on Facebook. If you're really into it, you should read "Word Freak" by Stefan Fatsis. He's was a WSJ reporter (I think) who took a year off to play competitive Scrabble, to see how good he could become in one year. It's an entertaining fast read that was later made into a documentary that I didn't think was quite as good (WordPlay, I think). Anyway, you also learn a lot about strategy through the book.

    The other thing that happens when you've been playing a long time is you memorize all the two letter words and most of the three letter words and you tend to recall all the crazy words that people have played against you. So though I have occasionally suspected people of cheating, I don't think it's that widespread. The online game with the dictionary built right into the game, is and advantage that the offline game doesn't have. But since the tool is built into the game, I don't consider sometimes heavily relying on that to be cheating at all. Going to some other website descrambler I think is not so cool, and I don't think (maybe I'm wrong) that people use them that much.

    That said, it is amazing how things go in waves. Sometimes you just keep getting great draws and the words are just there. I once won 19 straight games. I thought I was just becoming really good. But then I lost the next 10 (or something like that ... I didn't keep track of the losses). I've gone several games without a bingo, but once had a game with five bingos. Go figure.

    Generally, I feel like if my score is below 300, I deserve to lose. But if my score is above 350, I have a good chance to win. And I'm not sure I've ever lost a game where I've scored 400.

    Looking forward to more games with you. -- John