It was a case of you don’t know, what you don’t know, until you know. I was aware maybe the fourth time we gathered around the glass table in their Tustin backyard under the pergola, sitting in aluminum chairs tucked in close. All materials lay before us just waiting for the challenge to begin. The well-worn rectangular box was opened, its two halves nestled into each other. The 15” x 15” board lay unfolded on the tabletop, the four wooden racks were distributed, one in front of each person, and thin strips of scrap paper and a golf score-sized pencil, rested at her wrist. Our initials, underlined, were already neatly hand printed at the top of the page. When she picked up the purple velvet bag with the golden words Crown Royal embroidered on it, then pulled the drawstring apart, and dipped her hand in to extract the first tile, I knew…it was game on.
From my journal: April 15, 1985 Redondo Beach, California
“How is it I didn’t know it was okay to use a cheat sheet, that one even existed, and that aa, ai or ay were even real words?!!”
Although I had been a lifelong player, I didn’t know enough to be intimidated by them, or rather how they played. Some might have described Robert, his mom, Ella and his dad, Ralph as competitive, even passionate, but I was thinking more along the lines of…cutthroat. How naïve I was the first time I was invited to play. It all seemed so friendly, so…innocent. I was relaxed, even giggly reminiscing of past times playing with my own family in our living room. I recalled pleasant chatter as we waited patiently while each of us took our turn. No pressure, no stress. I even remember helping someone out when they became stumped. After all, it was just a wholesome game of Scrabble…or at least, it was supposed to be.
Reflecting on it now, a couple of red flags were flying high which would have indicated I was out of my league. Clue number one was, each person seated could literally reiterate their score and the scores of each player from the previous game, even if the last game was played like 47 days ago. Number two was what I called the sly but intentional bluff. Ultimately, one of them would be all smiles and lay down a word such as CATS by playing off someone’s S…that would give me hope. But then, on their very next turn they’d be shaking their head in dismay, as they’d string together something like ZINKIFY, earning at least 76 points while sheepishly looking up, shrugging, and saying, “What?! It just came to me.”
And number three was I began to think of the game in a totally different way. Scrabble means to scratch or grope around with one’s fingers to find, collect, or hold on to something. I had always thought of it as scratching or groping around in the bag with my fingers to find, collect or hold onto my letters in order to arrange them into words to play in strategic ways. But soon the word began to mean scratching my brain and groping around in my head to find a clever word play with tiles in my shaky fingers, while collecting my thoughts at a rapid pace and trying to hold onto my reputation as an intelligent, educated, thinking human being.
What this taught me was, if I wanted to take part, I needed to up my game.
I’ll admit it wasn’t easy learning how to play with Robert’s family. But in time, I could hold my own. I no longer was panicked when I sat down and my competitors stared at me as I stared right back. I became more confident. I no longer was afraid to ask for the “cheat sheet” that always seemed to be tucked away just under the box top therefore making someone have to inquire about it, indicating to everyone else, some help was needed. I simply thought of it as using my resources. And I no longer was worried about having the lowest score. I had shown up and had given it my all. What more could I really do?
Over the decades, I won Scrabble maybe a handful of times playing with Robert’s family. And that’s okay. While it felt great to be victorious, winning wasn’t what mattered most. As the saying goes, it’s not whether you win or lose, it really is how you play the game. And, who you choose to play it with.