Life Lessons Learned Across the Scrabble Board

(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 12/5/07)

Winter has arrived with a vengeance, and suddenly family members are spending more time indoors together. What to do with all that leisure time? I reach for the Scrabble game. And as I do so, I find myself thinking back on the thousands of Scrabble games I have played over the years, and realize that I have learned much more from the game than just words that start with Q that don’t need a U (Qat, Qaid, Qoph). Or new words that might not seem like words (bork, jink, zax).

I’ve deduced that the game of Scrabble can actually reveal many of life’s lessons in the time it takes to play a normal game. Of course, the time it takes to play a normal game can vary widely on whom you are playing with. My father used to be maddeningly slow at putting down words. My mother and sister and I would drum our fingers impatiently on the table, roll our eyes and fidget, pointedly look at and even tap our watches, hum show tunes, and finally resort to begging him to put something down. Anything. Then after fifteen mind-numbing minutes of tile shuffling, he would often sigh and put down an eight-pointer, at which point my mom and sister and I would swear never to play with him again. He was better off handicapping horses with his buddies at the track than facing down his wife and daughters over a “friendly game.”

After I had been married a few months I decided an appropriate amount of time had gone by and I could introduce Scrabble to my husband. After all the game had been such a big part of my life growing up, and now I had my very own Deluxe edition, with its spinning board and cloth tile bag beckoning to me from its unopened box. I felt fairly confident that my new husband and I would be well matched. He might have a Ph.D. in English Literature, but I was trained by my mother. From the time I was a little girl we would play word games where you make as many words as you can out of big words, and we also did crossword puzzles. And played lots of Scrabble games.

Suffice it to say that in the beginning I kicked my husband’s derriere (a good word if you want to get rid of a bunch of low pointers). But being the nice person I am, along the way I offered him insider tips in how to play the game – how to make several words at once, how to take maximum advantage of double and triple letter squares, and how to set aside letters to make a seven letter word. My days of derriere-kicking were soon over.

This past summer my mother was visiting for a few weeks, and we played dozens of games, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with my husband, although after a few games pitted against my mother and me, he begged off, stating that he found it too stressful to play with us. For the record, my mother is a very nice person also, but when we play Scrabble it is possible that our trash talking might be construed as somewhat uncongenial.

Luckily my recent college graduate son and his girlfriend arrived to visit and suddenly we had two new adversaries upon whom we could bestow our somewhat arcane knowledge of all things Scrabble. What follows are some of the lessons we imparted to these two lucky young people – lessons learned over the Scrabble board, but applicable also to Real Life.
…Everyone has the same chance at the letters. It’s often the luck of the draw.
…Never be too polite to challenge someone.
…Bluffing is not cheating.
…Don’t whine over missed opportunities.
…Take advantage of your opportunities as they present themselves.
…The one with the most points wins.
…Being nice only gets you so far.
…Use other people’s mistakes to your advantage.
…No curse words allowed.
…Always have a backup plan.
…Every time you reach in the bag for new letters it’s a chance to begin anew.
…Don’t use other people’s actions as an excuse for your poor performance.
…The family that plays together too often may end up not speaking for months.
…There is no arguing with the rules.
…Gloating over your own achievement is rarely in good taste.
…Life is like a bag of Scrabble tiles – you never know what you’re going to get (apologies to Winston Groom’s creation, Forrest Gump).

Whether the combined Scrabble wisdom of my mother and myself will impress itself on this next generation of word-lovers remains to be seen. But I did notice that our dog-eared Scrabble dictionary had disappeared from its usual spot. I later found it on my son’s nightstand.

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