A week into the Great Scrabble Freeze-Out of 2014, I’m left to contemplate my beginnings. It all started in the Dominican Republic back in January 2013. Then again, the game took root far earlier than that. There has always been Scrabble.
The Scrabble I play now, or did until a week ago, is the Facebook incarnation pimped via some Hasbro app. Jeff Wallach turned me on to this smartphone-enabled version of the game during a media junket to Casa de Campo, in the DR. I noticed what he was playing on his phone. When I inquired, there was a guarded, secret-society, “Can you handle the truth?” aspect to his responses. I guess I was deemed worthy enough. I’ve played some 350 games vs. Jeff and a dozen different opponents since.
Scrabble has always been with us, of course. We’ve all played it through the years, perhaps introduced to the game by parents, as I was. This wasn’t any rudimentary Candyland-type diversion, or some lame exercise sexed up by three-dimensional playing surfaces (The Game of Life), or anything requiring physical skill (Jenga), or something reliant on wellsprings of trivial knowledge.
Scrabble was and remains utterly singular and vital: strategic word-smithing in the language soup we all slurp.
This essay was long time in coming. I write it now because the mobile app that enables smartphone Scrabble has been unable to connect with Facebook for almost a week. Web alerts tell us developers are on the case. Until they solve the problem, short of going on the laptop and playing there (a place I do NOT wish to go), I’m stymied — and so are my half-dozen current opponents. I texted one yesterday: “Life has so little meaning without Scrabble.”
“I feel rudderless,” he responded. Immediately.
In short, I write this today because without phone Scrabble, I’ve got all sorts of bandwidth (if not exactly more time) on my hands. I might spend 15 total minutes tending to five or six Scrabble games in a typical day. But that quarter hour engenders an entire universe of the mind. Alas, that universe has, for a week, been devoid of matter.
My mom, a reader and lifelong classics freak, inculcated the power of Scrabble into all three of her kids. Parcheesi we played as young’uns; after that, it was Scrabble when proper board-gaming was undertaken. It was a banner day when I finally beat her, because our parents never ceded a game of any kind. It was that kind of household. And I’m glad for that in many respects, but this one for sure. She still speaks of that fateful day — as if a spell were broken. We played the other day, on an actual board. My brain is honed these days to an estimable Scrabble sharpness. The poor woman didn’t know what hit her.
I never played at college, but thereafter my brother Matthew and I shared an apartment with fellow Swellesleyan David Kett. All of us held down jobs that rendered us semi-nocturnal (we’re still surprised Kettle gave up a lucrative career in college-campus security dispatch, for the law). We’d circle back to 60 Columbia St. at some ridiculous hour and play serious, cut-throat Scrabble for bong hits: losers pack. We kept a running tally of wins, gaudy game scores and notable bingos — the 7-letter, tray-emptying triumphs that can launch true Scrabble lifers on glorious, 36-hour highs. Bingo was also our pet name for bong hits, so there was symmetry. This key word often morphed into “Bingo Bing!” at particularly high-spirited moments.
Bingo Bing also happened to be the name of my mother’s imaginary friend, when she was a kid (something I’m sure she regretted telling us). The dichotomy of this phrase recalling this fanciful figure from her youth, while signaling both the release of pure Scrabble joy and quite possibly a binger, we found hilarious.
I make it sound like I was playing Scrabble all the time as a young man, or a kid. Not the case. There were periods of mania, like the year on Columbia. But I didn’t play the game hardly at all once I moved to Maine in 1992. We have a board here — a special anniversary deluxe model, in fact, on a swivel, with ridges to hold the tiles in place. I dutifully introduced the game to my kids, but they were never particularly taken with it. We all moved on.
Now that I look back on it, Wallach’s Great Scrabble Reveal, in the Caribbean, was foreshadowed by a brief and shameful dalliance with a knockoff version of the game. Yes, Words With Friends — an execrably named pursuit, for starters, and just plain weird/wrong in a dozen other competitive respects. The board is different. The letter values are different. Scoring is inflated in ways all out of proportion. The game developers had to alter these things, I suppose, in order to not get sued. But on account of this, Scrabble’s inherent, elegant symmetry is thrown completely out of whack.
I played WWF a bit. It was okay. The novelty of having on my phone some marginally worthwhile gaming pursuit, even this barely reasonable Scrabble facsimile, was inviting. It never occurred to me that proper Scrabble could be played in exactly the same way, on my phone. Of course, it was in fact being played, in that special universe of wordplay, gamesmanship, strategy and trash talk that is smartphone Scrabble. It just took a trip to the DR to discover it.
Let’s hope it is returned to us soon.