Carol Kaplan runs a local Scrabble club that meets for three hours of games every week at Scripps Hospital. She also flies all over the country for tournaments.
I was a little late getting there, and I figured when I walked in they’d be in the middle of their games. I was surprised when I went to the room I was directed to and there were about 20 guys staring at me. Only 3 women. I noticed a few guys were unshaven, all were wearing T-shirts, and there was not a single Scrabble board on the table. I made small talk with one guy near the door and he smiled. After a few minutes of awkward silence, I asked, “Where are the Scrabble games?” The entire crowd erupted in laughter. They said it was the next room over. As I was leaving, they were making all kinds of comments.
When I made it next door, I asked Carol who they were. She informed me it was an AA meeting (ironically, “aa” was also being used in one game; it’s a two-letter word that means “a solidified lava with a jagged texture”). Carol quickly pointed out, “We don’t know what all the words mean. We just know which ones we can use. The first time I ever played my husband, he did the word ‘impale’ and was quite proud of himself. I put an r at the end of it and made a word off that. He said he’d never play with me again, and he never has.”
As I’m talking to Carol, some of the other players look over and smile. One old guy who looks like Burgess Meredith in Rocky (and has a Band-Aid on his cheek) says to his partner, “Who is this guy?” Then he looks up at me and says, “Would you stop talking?”
Yes, the Scrabble players can sometimes take the game too seriously. One lady here told me, “New players sometimes show up at a party. They are good living-room players, and we do all these words they’ve never seen. And we play with timers so you don’t just stare at your letters for a long time. The new players end up never coming back.” A few others laugh when they hear her tell me this.
I go over and grab some coffee and eat a few cookies. That will keep me from talking and getting yelled at again. Although, during this bit of silence, I hear a lady scream from the AA meeting, “I’m just so tired of being alone all the time!” Nobody looks up from their Scrabble boards.
I glance at one board and I see a bunch of words I don’t recognize: oxo, wark, haji, dioptase, arro, and quag. I remember when I first learned how to play Scrabble I used the word “xi” and got 50 points (it’s the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet) and “raj” (a king) — dumping the letter j, which would’ve cost me eight points. One of the guys here, Matt, is a computer programmer. He tells me, “I’ve had those usual arguments. Once somebody tried to use the word ‘zot.’ They said they saw it in the comic strip ‘B.C.’ But with The Scrabble Dictionary, you can always challenge a word. I played a tournament in the Sierras, and it was a group of women that play against each other. They didn’t want me to use any cuss words. And I did the word ‘tanners,’ and they had a fit about that.” He told me he’s been in this group for a dozen years after seeing them on the news playing in UTC.
Another lady tells me, after he leaves, “He’s also a great chess player. Sometimes after games, he’ll sit here working on chess moves and strategies.”
I ask about media coverage of Scrabble, since I remember one of their biggest tournaments was in San Diego a few years ago. Carol told me she won a tournament in Phoenix, even though there was a reporter pestering her as she played (should I take that as a hint?). I find out Carol also appeared on a radio show with Will Shortz, who edits the New York Times crossword puzzles.
One lady tells me she won the Channel 10 Leadership Award for helping seniors. But that’s not Scrabble-related.
An older Filipino man was the only one who didn’t have a problem playing with his spouse. He said, “Oh, she’s pretty good. I like to come here and play everyone though. Sometimes playing with her I get bored. But she’s learning. This is tougher competition.”
I hear loud laughter erupting from the other room. It goes on for at least 30 seconds. Again, nobody looks up from their board. They do their words and quickly smack the timer, fairly oblivious to what’s going on around them.
Carol does the word “crosseye” and gets 167 points, since she used all her letters (which gets you a 50-point bonus) and it was on two of the tripleword scores. I thought the word needed a hyphen, because on the Jethro Tull album the song is titled “Cross-Eyed Mary.” After the game her opponent looks it up. It’s not a word. Not only does it need a hyphen, but it needed the letter d at the end. I asked the lady why she didn’t challenge during the game, and she said, “Carol is a much better player than me. So sometimes I just assume she’s doing a word that can be used.”
Carol has won a lot of tournaments and often goes to Reno and Phoenix for games. She says, “I only go to about six a year now. I used to travel a lot more. I recently went to Seattle and played my sister-in-law.”
“Did you beat her?”
“Oh yeah, I kicked her ass.” We both laugh. “But she was really nice. She kept saying how great it was to be playing a professional. She was a good player.”
People whose hobby is a game tend to get labeled “geeks.” In high school we made fun of the people who played Dungeons and Dragons. And who in their right mind would look forward to a board game on the weekend?
But this is a smart bunch, and they’re interesting. One lady who looks to be in her late 40s tells me her husband is 94. I wasn’t sure if she meant his Scrabble average, but she meant his age. She tells me she has invented a number of things, and her most recent patent is a mask you wear over your face after having a face-lift (to keep the swelling down).
Another guy is a urologist — I stayed away from him. A few were lawyers; I watched them to make sure they weren’t cheating.
One guy tells me he started with this group a year ago (it’s been around for more than 20 years) and was pretty bad when he started. He said, “It was pretty humbling. I studied some words, since there are a lot of weird two-letter words. My girlfriend then would always get upset because of the words I played.”
A lady with a British accent says, “Once you’ve joined a club like this, you don’t want to play kitchen Scrabble with your family. This is a whole different game. I’m one of the weaker players here. At home, my daughter says she doesn’t like playing with me.”
I once played Scrabble on a date (at her insistence, when she saw the game in my trunk). I was beating her by a hundred points and she was insisting I’d spelled “epitome” wrong. We didn’t have a dictionary, so we argued for 20 minutes on a park bench. We asked somebody walking by, and they said, “I think it’s spelled ep-i-t-o-m-y.” She jumped up and down in excitement. And even though I knew I was correct, I took it off the board. I still smoked her by 170. (I hope you’re reading this, Andrea, even if you are in Michigan now.)
As I get the evil eye from the old guy, I quietly ask Betty, who’s an attorney, if she has any stories. She said, “I have the ‘womenizer’ story. I was in a tournament in the San Francisco Bay Area more than ten years ago. I played a woman that was highly rated. I played ‘womenizer.’ I figured, if you can have one womanizer, more than one would be ‘womenizer.’ I played it and she was thinking about challenging it. She let it go, but after the game she looked it up. For years after that, if I’d see her, she’d say, ‘Womenizer.’”
Dona Meilach tells me she’s an author of more than 80 books. She says, “Put my name in Google and see how many come up.” She shows me pictures of some of her books. I see Art Jewelry Today, Direct Metal Sculpture, and other architecture books, even a cookbook. Another lady says, “Most people carry around pictures of their kids, not their books.”
I watch as these players, all of whom are better than me, shuffle their letters around. One guy has the letters S-T-L-N-ID-E. I see a place on the board where he can play “listened” and get 59 points. Within seconds, he plays the word “tinseled” and gets 75.
I hear more commotion going on next door at the AA meeting. I think about going over and asking if they play Scrabble. But they’re leaving, and Carol says, “Their meetings are only an hour.”
We still have two more hours to go here. I see that some players are writing down their words on a pad and keeping track of what tiles they had when they played those words. That’s for studying later to see if they could’ve made a better play. One lady does a word that garners only 14 points, and she says, “I have really bad letters.” A fairly common excuse in the Scrabble world.
On the chalkboard I see they have written things like “the highest natural bingo of the night,” which means using all your letters without the help of the blank space (which can be used for any letter you want). The word used was “waister.”
Some people tell me about the different styles of the players. I notice one woman challenging her opponents all the time. I found out a long time ago, if you do that, you realize there are a lot of words you don’t know (and your opponent may not have even known). One lady said, “I didn’t know it was a word, but it looked like one.” I hear the old guy complaining again. It’s not about my talking. It’s about somebody putting somebody else’s letters in the wrong bag. There are eight different games here, and some of the letters are different colors.
I tell Carol my board had wooden tiles, and she says, “We don’t use those because some people remember the way the wood grain looks on the back of certain letters. Sometimes you do actually run into people that cheat.”
I also notice that the games are all on lazy Susans so they can easily be spun around. But when you’ve played as long as they have, you can see things while the board is upside down. I once played an entire game with the board upside down — while driving. My friend Bill was sitting next to me, and we had the board on both of our laps. It was the night before one of the Super Bowls here, and a cop pulled us over for swerving. He didn’t give us a ticket.
When I talk to one of the AA guys outside, he said, “Isn’t playing Scrabble kind of goofy?” In my effort to seem hip, I told him how in college I had my Scrabble tiles not in the plastic bag that came with the game but in one of those purple Crown Royal bags. He didn’t seem impressed. Or maybe he thought I was making some kind of joke, since he’s in Alcoholics Anonymous. He told me some interesting things about AA, and when I asked for his name for this story, he said, “There’s the word ‘anonymous’ in ‘Alcoholics Anonymous.’ ” We started laughing, and I thanked him for his time. But I couldn’t resist saying, “That’s 14 points.”
He replied, “What is?”
“The word ‘anonymous.’ ”
Maybe I am a geek.