In the beginning was the Word – or rather a word, as words spelt with capital letters are not allowed. Scrabble begins with a single word. Nothing can happen until that single word is down – the pattern on the board cannot begin to be created without that first word.
In our experience, Scrabble is best played by two enfleshed human beings. The rules say it can also be played by three or four people, but we have found the best games are a ‘trinity’ – him, me and the tiles on the board. The game does seem to have a life of its own. There are good boards and difficult boards. Boards which are open and those which seem closed up. Tiles which seem determined to clump together vowels or consonants and do not give the nice balance from which high-scoring words can be made. The tiles sometimes seem to be ‘on my side’ or ‘against me’. Or, it could be viewed as a nature/nurture problem. The gift of good tiles, high scoring letters, opportunities to play the ‘all-outers’ against the more demanding skill needed to make something of a mediocre group of letters. The spirit can sometimes be willing – but the concentration is weak.
Scrabble can have its own ritual food. The bowl of crisps or nuts, the glass of wine or lager, can add to the experience of the interconnectedness of yourself with the game. And of course some have an experience of Scrabble which dates from childhood (like me) whilst others have an adult conversion to the game (like John).
We have found that there are different interpretations of the game of Scrabble:
- There is the fundamentalist method of playing, where the stated rules on the lid of the box are the thing you have to go by. There is no deviation or interpretation allowed. These are the rules and so you must follow them or suffer the penalties. The dictionary (Chambers) is the judge and jury of the permissibility of a word, careful attention being paid to its derivation. If the word is not permitted, then the tiles must be removed and a turn is forfeited. Once a blank is played, it remains on the table and always represents the letter for which it was originally played.
- There is the liberal interpretation – the blank can be ‘swapped’ if you have that letter. The dictionary can be used as a check (before playing) or even, at the extreme liberal edge, opened and browsed through to try to find a suitable combination of letters that might fit (the Sea of Browsing you might call this). If a disallowed word is found to have been played then of course the player can have another try without penalty. There are also books of Scrabble words (no meanings). These can be consulted and no requirement is made of whether a player knows the meaning of a word or not.
There can also be the local language of the game. Here are three examples in Eckersley language:
- To ‘Poxon’ means to place all seven of your letters down on the board on your very last go in a game – thus snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as your opponent is left with their own letters to deduct from their final score. This is named after a certain John Poxon who played a solid game often deliberately and quietly falling behind his wife (and John and myself) as he played but then snatching the victory at the last minute in this way – it seemed every time we played!
- To play ‘Scunthorpe’. This term was given to us by ‘Auntie Edna’ (now in her 90’s and a mean Scrabble player and crossword fanatic). She does not play this way herself but was forced to do so by someone else she played with. It means to play in a fundamentalist way (see above) in a mean and crabby way – if you cannot use an opening yourself you spoil it for your opponent.
- To have a ‘Gentleman’s’. This means if you have a lousy hand (all vowels or suchlike) and it is your turn, you can ask your opponent for a gentleman’s agreement that both of you will throw your hand’s in and pick new tiles. Of course it reveals to your opponent that you have a poor hand – but it does mean that if they also have a weak hand and agree, the game is vastly improved.
But the end times (eschatology) of the contest can make or break what has gone before. It can be easy to lose concentration if your opponent (or partner in the creation of a game) is slow and you feel you are sufficiently far ahead to be out of reach. Paul did keep his eyes fixed on the goal, running towards it; and there is the saying that ‘It is not the beginning but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished which yields the true glory!’ Come to think of it that might also be said of walking from Land’s End to John o’Groats!