I am indefinably, irrepressibly, and unreservedly in love with the game of Scrabble. There, I said it.
This epic affair started young. I grew up in the 70s, when Saturday morning commercials buzzed with praise for the latest fare from Parker Brothers. In my world, grown-ups were required by law to congregate regularly at friends’ houses on Friday nights to play their favorite board games. Thanks to its two extra leaves, our dining room table quickly transformed into the perfect arena.
For this eight-year-old, it meant three things: extra sodas in the fridge, never-ending bowls of chips, and Scrabble.
Risk Night was boring. Clue Night took forever. But I absolutely loathed being told it was bedtime on Scrabble Night. Often I attempted reconnaissance missions from the shadow of the fireplace, but the cheap plastic on the bottom of my yellow footed pajamas scraped too loudly against the linoleum. Busted me every time.
For me, wooden racks and checkered boards symbolized adulthood. One day I too would arrive.
Fast-forward 28 years… My eight-year-old son Nick sat expectantly across the table, the board and bag of tiles between us. His big blue eyes sparkled with anticipation. Decades went into preparing exactly what words would be uttered on this momentous occasion, his Scrabble Initiation Day. I knew he would remember them his whole life.
“Okay, are you ready, sweetie?” I beamed. “Mommy’s fixin’ to kick your butt.”
“Realistically, I will continue to kick your butt for… oh, maybe five or six more years.”
“However, I make you a solemn promise this day: I will always play my best, starting right now. Mommy never, ever throws a game, and neither will you.”
“So when that day comes that you do beat me—and believe me, that glorious day will come—there will be absolutely no doubt in your mind that you, my son, were the better player. Do we have a deal?”
That same deal has since been struck with three other siblings. While I cannot claim that my children are avid readers or even like English, I do know that all four would drop their iPads in a heartbeat for a chance to wipe up the floor with Mommy at a game of Scrabble. And on those glorious days when they did, they knew those bragging rights were well earned indeed.
Of course, from the outset I modified our own set of house rules to encourage my budding little Scrabble aficionados:
1. Nine tiles instead of seven. When they were little, this gave much-needed variety in their choice of letters. As they got older, this variety significantly increased their chances of achieving the much-coveted BINGO, a 50-point bonus for using seven or more tiles in a single play. The day my son’s first play of the game stretched from the middle star to the triple word score, I nearly wept with joy.
2. Personalized point goals. While they were in training, setting appropriate goals always put victory within their grasp. I once read that a good Scrabble player can score over 300 points in a two-person game, so this was my goal. When my kids were under ten-years-old, their goal was 100 points. Each year according to their progress, I tacked on an additional 50 to 75 points. Therefore, they only competed against themselves until such time as they achieved 300-point status. Then the gloves came off.
3. Unlimited use of the dictionary. That’s right. No challenging or the subsequent penalties if a word is misspelled. This evened the playing field between my kids who already loved to spell and those who needed practice and encouragement. I picked up the latest paperback edition of the official Scrabble Player’s dictionary online for around $5, which lists significantly more words per page than a conventional dictionary. I purposely eschewed the electronic alternatives in favor of actual paper pages with guide words. It constantly assured me that my little ones did indeed know how to alphabetize.
4. Give them “lifelines.” Regis Philbin allowed his contestants three, so that seemed a good place to start. Kids under ten got three chances to “phone a friend” for help with their most difficult racks. Funny how I was always that friend. The teacher in me pounced on the opportunity to shuffle through every possible configuration of words with the silent –e before finally arriving at a word with five whole letters. As their personalized goals increased over time, their number of lifelines decreased. This habit is by far the toughest to break for all of us. Call me a big softie, but I cave every time my now sixteen-year-old looks at me with those same big blue eyes and says, “Mom, can I still have just one lifeline?”
Now that I teach beyond my dining room table, my love of Scrabble has elevated to heights previously unimagined. Semi-annual Student Scrabble tournaments take place on the last day of each semester in upper-level English classes on every One Day Academy campus. At the end, students may receive prizes for the highest overall score, the most points scored in a single play, or the most creative word as voted by the class. Meanwhile I flit about from board to board (I have fourteen and counting), explaining the house rules and giving out lifelines. Sometimes I even bring chips and sodas. Lucky for them I leave the pajamas at home.
During the latest tournament this past week, I had the extraordinary pleasure of playing one of the most stimulating, most challenging Scrabble games thus far. The opponent was my beloved Bastrop Cornerstone student Joel Benoit, who has been with me since English 1 and is now preparing to deliver his senior thesis in English 5 this May. He is a truly stellar young man in every way.
After volleying at one another for almost an hour, Joel breaks away with STRUNTING on a triple word score and seals my fate. Final score: Joel, 452 – Mrs. P, 368.
Congratulations, Joel—You have arrived. Never have I been so happy about losing.