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Scrabbling for a Drink

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When I first learned the word “qat,” I was ecstatic. Besides having an intriguing definition (a shrub whose leaves and buds are used as an habituating stimulant), “qat” is one of the few words in the English language that contains a q not followed by a u. This was big time.

Big time, that is, to those of us who play the word game Scrabble. Created in 1948 by an architect named Alfred M. Butts, Scrabble became an American hit during the fifties and sixties. True to all things challenging yet fun, the game has endured. It is estimated by the makers (Hasbro) that one in every three households owns a Scrabble game.

Scrabble is a verb meaning to scrape or grope about frenetically with the hands. While it’s true the hands are involved, it is the mind which works in a frenzied fashion during the game. Players form interlocking words, like a crossword puzzle, and attempt to use seven letters in combinations and locations that maximize letter value and placement. Two, three, or four players compete for the highest score. As well as being fun and competitive, Scrabble allows players to flex both mental and creative skills.

Scrabble is also a game of both skill and luck. Having a large vocabulary helps, as does knowing small, easy-to-place words, like the names of letters (m is spelled “em,” s is spelled “ess”). Infrequently used letters (like qs and zs) are worth more points than common ones (like ts and es). Knowing nifty little words like qat, which allows the player to use a q without having to acquire a u, can turn a common Scrabbler into a competitive one. 

My introduction to Scrabble came via my father and grandmother. Sunday afternoons were often spent playing the game, and I soon became an aficionado. Part of the fun was the mental challenge; the other part was the opportunity to kick some familial butt. Unfortunately, I was up against some stiff competition.

My grandmother was an avid crossword puzzle player, and knew all the two-letter words there were to know. Sprinkled throughout her house were Scrabble dictionaries. Once, while I was ruffling through her desk, I found a well-worn piece of scratch paper with two-, three- and four-letter words written down. It was her Scrabble arsenal.

Although she had been playing for years, grandma would always begin by bluffing.

“Now, remind me again, can you play diagonally?”

“No, Grandma,” my father and I would answer in unison, “you can’t play diagonally.”

My dad, on the other hand, always started full of confidence and bravado, which he’d rightfully earned. Fond of playing all seven of his tiles at once (which earns the player fifty extra points), he also seemed to know the most obscure, esoteric words, which he always used in making a play.

“Dad, what the hell is a ‘quagga’? You’re making that word up.”

“Get the dictionary,” he’d smugly reply.

And so I would, discovering that a quagga is a zebralike mammal that became extinct in the nineteenth century. Why on earth he knew such a word was beyond me; why on earth I had challenged him (thus forfeiting my turn) was an even greater mystery.

My family Scrabble games got even more fun when we started betting money. At first it was a mere five or ten dollars, but then the stakes were raised. As my education advanced and my Scrabble abilities were honed, my father, previously only challenged by his aging mother, was now being challenged by his daughter. Not to be beaten by youth, he upped the ante to one hundred dollars. This gesture was meant to make the victory richer and the defeat that much more heartbreaking. Betting also created a single-minded focus that could be mind-numbing. I would feel the dollars slipping from my fists as I spent five, ten, or fifteen minutes on a turn, trying to weave a high-scoring word out of an A, A, E, E, L, I and O. 

Not only have I learned many otherwise useless words playing Scrabble, I’ve also learned some life lessons. Namely, that one should never underestimate the underdog. My dad learned this when I first beat him; I learned this when a three-martini ninety-year-old beat the both of us.

It was a typical one-hundred-dollar game. My grandma, though still a very capable player, had become less of a threat in her advancing years, so my father and I were primarily pitted against each other. It was cocktail hour, so my grandmother had a martini to kick off the game. Dad sipped Zinfandel. Not to be slowed by alcohol, I drank coffee.

I started the game feeling focused and sharp. Benjamin Franklin was in sight. High scoring words were played and we all remained remarkably close: my father, unable to play his seven-pointers and pull ahead; me, enveloped in focused determination; and my grandma, surprising herself with a steady performance.

The game progressed and so did my grandma’s drinking, much to our encouragement. As a rule, Scrabble is best played with cocktail accompaniment. This rule usually holds as long as you are able to maintain relative sobriety, while your opponent suffers under the fogging weight of liquor. If you are making the drinks, theirs should be a double and yours should be a virgin. Your opponent will become less aware of the score and more aware of the increasing perplexity of letters and words. They start to regress, and play words like “cat,” “and,” “the.” This tactic usually works.

Usually—except for this particular game. It was during martini number two when it became clear the gin was not slowing my grandmother’s game but helping it. She was in the lead.

This lead continued into her third martini, when my dad and I really started to sweat. The bag of letters was getting smaller and smaller, signaling the end of the game. The first person to use all their letters goes out, and receives the points from the other players’ remaining letters. Because our scores were so close, winning would come down to this. Grandma had 235 points; dad, 229; and me, 225. To our dismay, grandma went out first.

By this point she’s bombed. She’s had three martinis during the course of one Scrabble game and can’t stand without assistance. By this point also, she is the official champion. My father and I succumb, victims of a well-executed shock and awe strategy. My grandma, however, is just as shocked as we are, as we pass the hundred to its rightful owner. She hiccups and pockets the cash.

Never underestimate the underdog, I think, especially when she’s drunk. I leave the table and help myself to a martini.

Photo: Penny Mathews

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