A Yankee Notebook

December 26, 2016


MONTPELIER – Scrabble tiles used to be made in Vermont of good local sugar maple wood. I loved to hold them in my hand as I played them, and wonder where each had grown. But in recent years they’ve been made of black plastic, which is okay, I guess; but it doesn’t have any heart to it. Also, if you drop one – a not infrequent occurrence – it hits the floor with hardly a sound, bounces farther than maple, and is the very devil to find down there.

Mother and I played again last evening. The conditions couldn’t have been much more difficult, unless we’d taken the game outside into the frozen darkness. The board was perched on her knees and lap in her hospital bed, and she couldn’t jack herself up high enough to get a good look at it. Besides that, the bed was covered with her favorite black-and-white polar fleece comforter, so dropped tiles were almost invisible there, too. And on top of everything, the poor woman was just drowsy enough from her medications that she couldn’t exert her usual laserlike focus on the playing field. As a result, it was a runaway for the visiting team.

We’ve been playing the game together for exactly 57 years. We know that because my mother gave us a set for our first Christmas together, in 1959, and there was very little else to do in the Adirondack woods in the middle of winter before television and with only two radio stations, WIRD in Lake Placid and CBM Montreal. How primitive that Scrabble set seems now! It was a smooth-surfaced folding board without the little curbs that hold the letters in place on the newer sets, so it had to be laid on a flat, stable surface.

We started recording our high scores after we moved to New Hampshire in the late 60s, and quit for some reason in 2004 – probably from embarrassment because we’re not doing as well as we once did. I’ve won more often than she has, because I come up with words like “cenote” and “rhumb” and “vacuous.” But she has a far superior spatial sense and a raptor’s instinct for the sudden pounce, so she has more high game scores than I, including the highest: 463 on January 20, 1998. We probably went to bed grumpy and late that night – grumpy because I hate to lose, and late because, when I’m behind, I take forever to scope out each move. After a while she sometimes asks, “Is it your move or mine?”

In February of 1972 she also scored the highest word – “equalized” –  for 129. You can tell, if you know the game, that she did that without the seven-letter bonus of 50 points. She must have bridged two Double Word Scores, and she had the “q” and “z,” besides. Our younger daughter, Martha, has weighed in on the same record page with a 141-point word – “daydream” – in August of 1980. My calculations show her to have been 11 years old at the time, and I wasn’t there, so I regard that score with skepticism, like the claimed 231-mile-per-hour wind gust on Mount Washington in April of 1934.

The game of Scrabble was invented during the 1940s by an out-of-work architect named Alfred Mosher Butts. He actually went over the front page of The New York Times, counted the number of occurrences of each letter, and used that proportion to decide how many of each to include in the game’s complement of 100, which includes two blanks that can be any letter, but carry no count. After a shaky start, Scrabble finally caught on when a Macy’s executive played it once on a vacation in Maine. It’s gone through several owners and sold many millions of copies.

A continuing problem has been what words are permissible. Proper nouns and contractions are out; that’s easy enough. But dictionaries of varying sizes have complicated matters. Thus there is an official Scrabble dictionary; but because English is such a dynamic language, and because new words are forever becoming acceptable, it must constantly be brought up to date. Mother and I are currently much in need of an update. This can often be a good thing. For years we almost dreaded drawing a “Q” from the pile near the end of a game because without a “U,” we were in trouble. But then “Qi” appeared (“life force” in Chinese medicine and martial arts), and “Q” became a dangerous weapon, especially when it could be used twice, as in an L-shaped pair of “Qis.” I’ve played several times in Appalachian Mountain Club huts where there haven’t been dictionaries to resort to for proof. One of my opponents was so convinced that a word I’d used wasn’t a word that he refused to continue, until I said,”Look. It’s a word; you can trust me. For now, let’s count it. When we get home, we’ll look it up, and if it’s not, I’ll default the game.”

Some people cheat at the game. I have a sister-in-law in Atlanta who cleans my clock every time we play because she’s memorized all the permissible two-letter words, and can hook on almost anywhere she wants to. I consider that beneath my dignity – and too much trouble, besides.

Meanwhile, taking a look at the scores produced by the true champions of the game, who compete each year at tournaments put on by the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA), is pretty depressing. Here at home we feel pretty good if our combined score – we don’t keep track of the winner’s score anymore – reaches above 700. But on October 12, 2006, Michael Cresta (the winner) and Wayne Yorra, playing in Lexington, Massachusetts, posted a combined score of 1320. Michael’s score in that game (830) was topped in 2014 by one Hasham Hadi Khan of Sri Lanka, who somehow managed an 876. Those must be incredible games!

Meanwhile, Mother and I potter on in relative peace, obeying or relaxing the rules as suits our mood, and enjoying this contest that has helped to solder our relationship over so many years.

Photo by Willem lange