Scrabble Scrimmage

Children make the most desirable opponents in Scrabble as they are both easy to beat and fun to cheat. -- Fran Lebowitz

'These are tough letters," I said, sliding my "Z" tile to the left of the "Y". I was bluffing, of course, and hid my smile when it dawned on me that if I could get my word, crazy, over that red square, I'd earn a whopping 57 points. This wasn't poker, but no matter the game, I always bluff. I am convinced this gives me a psychological advantage. Get them complacent and they'll take bigger risks. Tell them you're doing poorly and they'll listen to your words before discovering the truth -- you're slaughtering them. "You're playing Scrabble against Barb?" Because he had been facing his computer, David had missed my silent but eager challenge to our friend Nathan, which involved a mere shaking of the box in front of Nathan's face until he offered an indifferent "Sure."

"Yeah, I am," Nathan responded. "Why? Is she gonna kick my ass?"

"No, no, I'm sure you'll do fine," I quickly interjected, before David had a chance to ruin my next play. "And if you happen to lose," I added, "you shouldn't feel bad because I probably play more often than you do."

"Like every day on your Treo," David mumbled."

"What?" Nathan asked.

"Nothing, don't listen to him," I insisted. "It's your turn."

Nathan thoughtfully rubbed his recently grown Fu Manchu mustache. While he deliberated for what seemed like an eternity, I engaged the game I had going with my Treo -- I was ahead of the computer by 70 points. Finally, Nathan placed the tiles "C", "A", and "T" on the big board between us.

"Seven points, not bad!" Stroke their egos and they won't forfeit before you have your chance to shine. He'd opened me up for the triple and I seized the opportunity, making a show of counting my points slowly, deliberately. It's easy to get over being a sore loser. Being a good winner is another thing entirely. "Fifty seven!" Self-satisfaction was evident in my tone. "Wow, that's even good for me. It's your turn again."

Two weeks before I opened this can of whoop-ass on Nathan, I played Scrabble with David's two nieces at his parents' house. We played teams, with the 8-year-old on my team and the 11-year-old on Ellen's. It was supposed to be fun, a way to engage the girls. But Ellen and I are Scrabble adversaries, which made it impossible for me to let my guard down.

"No, no, that's not a word," I said. "Let's check the dictionary." Ellen verified that I was correct -- the word she and Becca had fabricated was more make-believe than Narnia. Does it really matter? I asked myself. Yes. It's not a word, and by the way, that play would have set them ahead, I answered. Then, forcing myself to appear humble and understanding, I said, "You can play it anyway, I just thought it would be good if the girls could improve upon their vocabulary." Another bluff.

Gauging my sincerity, Ellen said, "No, that's okay, we'll think of another word." I sighed with relief and waited for my turn -- I mean Carly's and my turn. "We" won by a landslide.

It's human nature to be competitive and, at least in our culture, it's common to want to be the best at whatever it is you're doing. If the spectrum of competitiveness were Kinsey's scale of sexuality, I'd be a badass bull-dyke.

Despite my competitive nature, I've never earned first place in any of the many contests I've entered. But games are different; they offer me a chance to come out on top. To be the best at something, even if it that something is a simple game of Slap-Jack, which is a card-game turned wrestling match when I play against my sister Jenny.

Jenny is just as bad as I am when it comes to competition. We both play to win and she who loses does not go down gracefully. Handing us a deck of cards is like putting two captains on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. In Slap-Jack, we each get half the deck and face each other Indian-style. We alternately toss a card face-up into a pile and when a jack appears, the first one to slap it gets all the cards stacked up beneath -- the goal is to get the most cards.

If Jenny makes it to that jack first, she earns an immediate retributive slap to the back of her hand before she has a chance to lift it off the jack. And vice versa. The first hit is easy to justify because our hands are moving so fast to get that jack. But we work ourselves into slapping fits -- I hit the jack, she hits my hand, I hit hers, and the cycle continues. To spare our dignity, Jenny and I keep to more civilized games of chance, like Sequence.

These days, my favorite game is Scrabble. I've become somewhat of a Scrabble geek worthy of a place next to the nerds depicted in the Scrabble documentary, Word Wars. There's no telling when or where you'll come across one of these game geeks. Last summer, Dr. Michael Baden of HBO's Autopsy and his lovely wife, Linda, dropped in to visit David's parents and happened upon David and me playing Scrabble in the kitchen. Thirty minutes later, Michael was tossing down medical terms and it was clear that Linda had memorized every two- and three-letter word in the Official Scrabble Dictionary.

I still think we should have challenged some of that forensic jargon, but I doubt that would have given us much of a chance. Because English is their second language, David's parents chose to sip their coffee and observe the intent, single-minded creatures their guests, and son, had become. After kicking our asses and stifling their urge to gloat, Michael and Linda bid their hosts adieu and left me and David sulking.

The old saying about tennis suggests that if you play with someone who is better than you, your own skills will improve. I don't like that saying. I don't like to play Scrabble with Heather, an English teacher, because she always wins. David is hit or miss. But Nathan, on the other hand, is a joy to play with.

"What's the score?" He'd done okay, considering his novice status.

"320 to 190," I answered. "But that's not a bad score, I mean, I just scored 385 against my Treo, so you held your own, man."

Nathan swore he would practice and come back over to challenge me and win back his pride. While he was taking it in stride and sharing with me his plan for my ultimate Scrabble demise, I recited the two- and three-letter words in my head and tried to remember those terms I'd looked up in the Physician's Desk Reference. If we teamed up, David and me against Michael and Linda, I might just be able to beat them. But if we lose again, I have a back-up plan -- to challenge the good doctor to an old-fashioned game of cards and slap my way to victory.

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