Monday, July 31, 2006

Scrabble Therapy

Today was my grandmother's birthday. I won't reveal her age, but I will say that I descend from trees. My maternal lineage is comprised of women who easily and gracefully outlived their men, visiting hospitals only to see patients or give birth. However, there must have been a significant dilution of the gene pool, because I never did give birth and I spent my time in the hospital having a malignant brain tumor removed at age 38 (my mother's age when she started law school).

My grandmother, mother, and I also represent three generations of Scrabble fanatics. We like to play together any chance we get, and we are friendly but fierce in our quest for a seven-letter word that uses a "Q", "Z", "J", or "X" and fits nicely on the triple-word space. We each tap our fingernails on the table as we study our letters; we never remember the agreed-upon protocol for choosing who goes first (the one who draws closest to "A" or the highest point value letter); we each groan when the letter bag is emptied, and we have incredible vocabularies. (How many of you know that "wadi" is a word? It's defined as: 1. a valley, gully, or streambed in northern Africa and southwest Asia that remains dry except during the rainy season; 2. a stream that flows through such a channel; or 3. an oasis. Mostly, though, it fits nicely in weird spaces to yield maximum point value.)

Mom and I decided to go to Arizona and visit my grandmother this past weekend to play Scrabble with her as a way of continuing my birthday celebration and beginning her birthday celebration. It was a blast! We all knew the value of making hay while the sun shines - or in other words, playing Scrabble while there are enough glial cells left in the brain - so we jumped at the opportunity to continue this long-standing ritual while we are all still here and able.

Scrabble is reassuringly therapeutic, because it is a great neuro test. Organizing letters into words, remembering one's vocabulary, and quickly calculating scores requires a certain level of neurological capacity, which I was happy to confirm. I can't remember how many games we played, or how many I won, but we played many games and I won at least a few of them. My goal was to score higher than my weight during each game, and I was happy (in more ways than one) to be able to accomplish that goal each time we played.

And of course, in my habit of drawing analogies and lessons from everything around me, I found that there is much to be learned (besides spelling and vocabulary) from Scrabble. The biggest lesson I learned from Scrabble is about making the best out of the luck of the draw.

It's not uncommon during play to bemoan the random letters that we get to work with. Sometimes we are plagued with all vowels or all consonants, or we don't get enough high point value letters. Sometimes we get the "Q" without ever getting a "U". It can be brutal. Sometimes we get the "J" at the very end, when the board is full and someone else is going to use up their letters and end the game and leave us with an eight-point penalty.

Sometimes we feel limited by the way that the board is filling up (or not filling up). The ideal game is one where we are spread all over the board, so we have good access to the double/triple value squares. It's also ideal to have lots of root words placed in convenient locations, giving us opportunities to expand by adding an "S" or some other consonant that enables us to make two words instead of one. When the board is too limiting, it becomes a challenge, even when the letters can form a great word.

Sometimes we feel victimized by others. "You took my word!" was a common cry, often with facetious threats of hand slapping, whenever someone played a word in a spot that was in the designs of the next player. The punishment is usually a painfully long wait for the next player to come up with an alternative word.

All of these forces combine to dictate whether we have a "good" game or a "bad" game, and we are at the mercy of these elements, which determine whether we will win. At least I thought so, until I started playing Scrabble on the computer a few years ago.

When I played against "Maven" - or whatever the computer's name is - I noticed that none of these factors affected their play. The computer received random letters, just like I did. The computer was at the mercy of my plays, just as I was at the mercy of its plays. And yet the computer would always beat me. Why? Because it could play a winning game, regardless of the circumstances. The computer was able to identify words that could fit in any situation, using any combination of letters. It knew how to best leverage even the low point letters for maximum value. It had a vocabulary that goes far beyond mine. I was amazed at what it could do with stupid letters and limited space.

Of course, life is like Scrabble in this way. You don't have control over the letters that you get to play with. You don't have control over what other people do, and sometimes their actions affect your plans. Everyone who plays has these circumstances, so it's not the circumstances that determine success or failure. In fact, one of the games I lost was one where I started the game with a 50-point word. I had great letters but I still lost because someone who had all low-point letters was still able to make a 60-point word ("toileting" - which used up all her letters for a 50-point bonus).

The ones who win consistently are the ones who are knowledgeable and open to all of the possibilities available. They know how to leverage what they have. They know how to be flexible when the unexpected happens. They don't sink into an all-vowel pity party and give up on the game.

Those who succeed in life have the same attributes. They are knowledgeable and open to the possibilities before them. They know how to leverage what they have. They know how to be flexible when the unexpected happens. They don't have pity parties, and they never give up.


Heather said...


You are simply incredible. I love how you can apply a great thought or principle to what most would see as a regular every day game or occurance.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

bryny said...

So a wadi is an arroyo just moved half way around the planet?

My mother was also a big scrabble fanatic. A lot of her friends visited her in the hospital and played a game or two befor her brain surgery. Our big arguement was whether we were going to allow looking up words before play or only as a challenge. And before the official Scrabble (b) dictionary, which dictionary we would use as reference. Thanks for bringing back memories.

Shane Estremera said...

Scrabble is probably the most classic word board game and loved by many. Essentially, it’s a crossword style word game, each player has to form words from tiles, which have individual letters printed on a board marked by a grid.

All Consonant words for scrabble