One way to identify a Scrabble player is to ask them for a two letter word that starts with “Q”. If they answer Qi, they are either a scrabble player or just wicked smart. Merriam-Webster tells us that Qi means, “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally and is of central importance in some Eastern systems of medical treatment (as acupuncture) and of exercise or self-defense (as tai chi ).” But to the Scrabble player, Qi is just a two letter word to keep in your toolbox to play for big points in tight board situations. That’s what Scrabble boils down to – getting the most points for the smallest of plays. It’s using the board to your advantage. It’s not so much a vocabulary quiz as it is a test of strategy.
Scrabble fans can thank Alfred Mosher Butts for their hours of word joy. Butts was an out-of-work architect from Poughkeepsie, New York who is the inventor of Scrabble. He wanted to create a new word game that would use both chance and skill, so he combined features of anagrams and crossword puzzles. It was originally called Lexiko which he later changed to Criss Cross Words. It was not an immediate success and game makers rejected Butts invention. It wasn’t until he met up with entrepreneur and fellow game enthusiast James Brunot that it started gaining traction. Brunot helped refine the rules and the design to make it a better game. He also changed the name to Scrabble (which literally means “to grope frantically.”) The game was trademarked in 1948 and the first games were made and sold out of a rented abandoned schoolhouse in Dodgington, Connecticut. In 1952, they licensed Long Island-based Selchow & Righter Company, a well-known game manufacturer to market and distribute the games in the United States and Canada. Later, in 1986, Selchow & Righter was sold to Coleco Industries and then three years later (after Coleco’s Cabbage Patch Kid boom had faded away), they declared bankruptcy. The folks at Hasbro swooped in and purchased their primary assets — most notably the Scrabble game and Parchesi. That’s who owns the rights to Scrabble today which makes them a Rhode Island company. Go Rhody! (Info from “History of Scrabble“)
Scrabble is a game that is usually found on everyone’s board game shelf. It’s usually sandwiched in between Monopoly and the fancy Backgammon board. It comes out on occasion, usually in the long days of winter when you are looking to amuse yourself to keep from going stir crazy. It’s a good hour’s worth of fun and a way to keep your brain stimulated. When I first met Lola and her family, I discovered that their Scrabble board was front and center and in high rotation. It was her Mom’s favorite activity and she was always up for a rousing game. She would play at the kitchen table, on the deck or even at the beach. The game traveled with her. It was one of her simple joys. I played with her and Lola a few times. They would have battles and were way more familiar with the strategy of the game than I was. I was always looking for the 50 points for using all your tiles. But that’s not how you win. You play the small words and the combinations. In baseball terms, you play small ball. And Gigi played it like a master. I can picture her in front of the board with her glasses perched ever so delicately on the end of her nose, a coffee within reach, and all the possibilities of what she could play flashing behind her eyes. She would always be gentle with you (naturally), but she had the winning instinct for the game and once she got the lead, she didn’t like to give it up. She’d keep score methodically and she’d take a break every now and then for a butt, but being in front of those wooden tiles is an image we will never forget.
My mom played Scrabble too and was (is) a big fan, although truth be told she plays wrong. She’d count all the special score tiles every time you played them (so if you added an “s” to a word that was just played for a triple word score, you’d also get that triple word score). That led to some extremely high scoring games in comparison and some confusion when you start playing with people who play the correct way. Still, she has always enjoyed the game and if I was going to name her favorite game outside of cards it would be Scrabble. After we had all moved out of the house, she would play against my Dad and they had quite the competition going. I think those score sheets are still in the box. That’s where Scrabble becomes a bit sad because my Mom doesn’t get to play anymore because my Dad is not there to join her. Each score sheet with my Dad’s swooping handwriting is a sad reminder about the simple joys of quiet nights they would have together. Nowadays I’ll play the online Scrabble-wannabe game Words With Friends against my mom which just isn’t the same. She hasn’t picked up the nuances of the game and I believe my current record against her is 264 to 2. There are some technological issues with her learning the game, so she does her best, but it’s just not the same.
I was in a Scrabble Club once, or at least for two nights. It was back in New Hampshire and I was just trying to find something to do to break up the monotony of life. I figured I like Scrabble and maybe this could be an opportunity to meet new people. So I joined. It was held in the rec room of an assisted living facility. The other members took it very seriously. They would play in tournaments around New England and always wanted their scores recorded properly. It made me realize how I was an amateur and even though I’m not stupid, I felt out of my league. I was intimidated. It didn’t last very long for me – just wasn’t my scene. But as brief as my club days were , I did learn a lot about game strategy and play. And about hoarding back issues of New York Times (required in the club bylaws).
To celebrate today, I asked Lola if she wanted to play Scrabble over a cup of coffee. She thought that was a great idea and she even went and got the supplies which included: her Mom’s special board, her Mom’s Scrabble dictionary and two Scrabble coffee mugs. She opened the Scrabble box delicately and carefully took out the board, the bag of tiles and a wooden tile holder for each of us. Inside the box were also some happy little memories left from her Mom – score sheets, in her handwriting, which brought back memories of all those times Gigi would play. There were games with her and Lola, games between her, Lola and Lola’s sister Katie, games with her and her sister Kathy and even games between her and her husband. It was a little archive all stored within the box with each sheet a memory of a time that has passed. You could almost feel her presence in that box (the qi of Gigi).
I had to go to work at 4 o’clock so I knew we had limited time, but we started to play anyway. I made us coffees and I had even purchased a Hostess cupcake twin pack earlier in the week for just this occasion. That was Gigi’s favorite treat so once again we were channeling her. Lola and I have played Scrabble before and it’s usually a close battle but Lola always seems to come out ahead. Lola knows the game strategy and plays it like a maestro. It’s been a while however so in my favor I had my Scrabble club experience and also the fact that I play Words With Friends with some regularity. Lola had not used her Scrabble muscle in some time. When we started to play, you could tell. She had to take her time and really look through each possibility. She was even laughing at herself for how slow she was playing and I honestly cooked an entire Mac and Cheese casserole while waiting for her to finish one turn. But I was in no hurry and I like when Lola is lost in concentration. Gigi had that ability too, where she would disappear in her thoughts. At one point Lola started spewing her Mom’s advice: If you can’t play a strong offense, make sure you play a strong defense. She was making sure she was not setting me up for a big play on my turn. The game went back and forth for a while and then I was able to play ‘cavity’ on a triple word score for 50 plus points. I thought that would hold off Lola but then she countered by playing ‘antique’ on a double word score for a big score. It was neck and neck.
And well, that’s kind of where we left off. The day had moved along and I had to leave for work, so we covered up our tiles and put the game on pause. We had hopes to resume after I got home which ended up being around 9:30, but by that time Lola was on her way to bed. We only have a few titles left so I imagine we will finish up at some point on Friday. I may push the issue because it is a rare moment when I am winning against her at Scrabble. If we have to cancel, I may accuse her of filibustering. I played another word when I woke up on Friday and I now have about a 25 point lead. We will see how it goes.
Scrabble will always have a special place in our hearts because it reminds us of those who played before us and who taught us the game. We think about those moments of quiet when you are waiting for your opponent to make their next move as we anxiously covet the empty triple word score space that you could use on your next turn if they don’t take it. We think of the laughs we have had over silly words, over challenges and just being at the table with those we love. We miss them. We miss hearing them shake the tile bag before they dig in. We miss the way they look at the words we play with both appreciation and with competitive disdain. We miss the company, the coffee, the cake. I guess Scrabble has become more of a memory than a game. But it’s a happy memory too and one that we will keep playing until we use up all the tiles. That’s what we celebrated today and that was a win for all in our book (and naturally the loser ha\d to clean up).
Next up: National Pecan Day