To say that I lost every game of Scrabble that I played at Scrabble Club 247 would be an understatement. To say that I got hosed by a series of elderly women; that would be closer to the truth.
Did you know that there are 101 2-letter words in the official Scrabble dictionary? Did you know that every member of Scrabble Club 247 has them memorized? In fact, the woman sitting next to me during my second game let it be known that she had finished memorizing her "threes" and was working on her "fours." I thought that knowing fancy words like "hame" and "tisane" would get me in good with the Scrabble folk, but the members of SC247 couldn't have cared less about my eclectic vocabulary. As soon as I revealed my average Scrabble score they handed me a cheat-sheet and ushered me away from the Experts' table.
I played my introductory game against Richard, one of the founders of SC247. The man couldn't have been nicer as he showed me that the namby-pamby Scrabble I had played with Grandma wasn't going to cut it anymore. Tournament Scrabble is different from casual Scrabble in a number of terrifying ways. First and foremost, you can challenge your opponents' words. That means that when the 86 year old woman you are playing against lays the word "squod", you had better call bullshit. Since "squod" isn't a word, she will have to remove it from the board and lose her turn. On the other hand if your opponent plays the word "buqsha" and you challenge, you lose your turn, since everyone knows that's a word, you moron.
Now, I know that some people play this way in their homes, but my family learned long ago that if you want dinner conversation to remain civil it's best to play friendly Scrabble. With family harmony in mind, words that don't turn up in our battered 1982 edition of The Official Scrabble Dictionary are removed from the board, and players are allowed to retake their turns. Playing with challenges is stressful! The message behind a challenge, as far as I'm concerned, says one of two things to your opponent: you are a big cheater pants, or you're a dumb ass who doesn't know his buqsha from his squod. I'm uncomfortable with confrontation in almost any situation; sitting across from an old woman who's wearing a muumuu and telling her I think she's stupid isn't something I'm prepared to do. Yet.
The other big difference is that tournament Scrabble is timed. At SC247 each player gets 25 minutes on their clock. Games take a little over 50 minutes to play, though Expert players usually need much less time. When I play Scrabble with my friends there is often a bottle of wine or three involved. It takes a little longer to lay a word when your tiles are swimming in front of you. My friend Jon and I used to play Scrabble while we were watching TV. I had a turn during one of our games that took 45 minutes; we got distracted by a Cyndi Lauper concert and took a time out to have a dance party.
My final opponent on Wednesday night was Gloria, the oldest active member of SC247. I sat at our board and waited as Gloria positioned her walker, then we began our game. The three people I had played before Gloria had been very friendly; they gave me pointers and congratulated me when I made strategic plays. Barb, my second opponent, brought me a chocolate chip cookie. Gloria was having none of that. Gloria studied the board and fingered her pearls silently between her turns. We traded words and kept the score pretty even through the first half of the game. I pulled ahead with "avidly" and was even entertaining heady thoughts of winning, when she laid "squod."
I would hate to imply that anyone would play an illegal word in the hopes of taking advantage of a beginning player. I would further hate to imply that an 80-something year old woman would use her apparent decrepitude to hoodwink people into underestimating her intellect. What I will say is that when Gloria dropped "squod" I looked at her tremulous smile and I didn't challenge the word. I never regained the lead, and Gloria beat me with a score of 305 to 239. To add insult to injury Gloria couldn't seem to grasp the fact that she had won. After we finished our game she congratulated me on winning; I told her she had won in the gentle voice I reserve for people who are losing their grip on reality.
My foray into competitive Scrabble was humbling. I walked in thinking that I would be competitive at the beginners level; I walked out thinking that old people are tricky and not to be trusted. But I'm definitely going back. I don't look forward to staring across a Scrabble board into Gloria's steely gaze again, but I had a weirdly fantastic time. I don't think that I'll ever finish memorizing the "threes" in the Scrabble dictionary ... I don't think that I'll ever start memorizing the "threes" in the Scrabble dictionary; but I'm all over the two-letter words. My goal is to beat Gloria before she hits 90.