Nice Rack!

It is seven o’clock on a Thursday night, and I am at the Honors Bridge Club on 58 street about to embark on the first of four Scrabble games. My opponent, one of the many balding middle-aged men here, patiently waits for me to put down the first word. Despite the hundreds of Scrabble games I have played in various living rooms and basements, I am nervous. I look down at my vowel-ridden tile rack and dejectedly plunk down “ADO.” I announce my score (eight), hit the game clock, and try to ignore my opponent as he rolls his eyes in complete loathing. This is the National Scrabble Association’s Manhattan branch, where over-zealous beginners are put in their place and pale men in tube socks reign supreme. The club is directed by Joel Sherman, better known as G.I. Joel. (The “G.I.” stands for “gastrointestinal” in honor of his acid reflux.) As the 1997 World Champion and 2002 National Champion, G.I. Joel runs the club with an iron fist and meticulously pleated pants. He frowns upon tardiness as well as the sharing of writing utensils. When players yell, “Challenge!” to question the authenticity of a word, he barrels toward their table while furiously flipping through the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary. He never actually plays at these meetings, and instead, watches over the games with a hawk-like intensity that flusters new players into spilling tiles or choking on their complimentary pretzels. Since I am relatively new to “tournament-style” playing, I am given a cheat sheet of commonly used two- and three-letter words, along with a lengthy set of rules. Compiled by G.I. Joel, it doles out sage advice such as “don’t play scared” and “balance your rack,” as well as stressing that these meetings are not meant to be social. Excessive talking during games (known as “coffeehousing”) can lead to ejection. I witness this rule first hand as a woman next to me begins to coo about her newborn grandchild, quickly prompting a chorus of angry muttering and one “shut the hell up, lady!” Regardless of the rules and their merciless leader, most of my fellow players are gracious and (against all odds) socially adept. The Manhattan branch is known for its fierce competition thanks to the handbook/memoir, Word Freak, by Stefan Fastis and the 2004 documentary, Word Wars. However, it is only during games that players slip into a Machiavellian mindset, impatiently chewing on ice cubes and hissing “goddamit” every time they’re stuck with the Q. Between games, players are affable and eager to talk politics, TV, or clam chowder. Aside from one or two college students, the majority of players are retired or looking forward to it. Several of them are in word-related fields such as teachers, proofreaders, and “freelance” writers, but G.I. Joel reminds me that Scrabble is based more on “statistical analysis, probabilities, and spatial relationships.” This makes sense when a snaggletoothed grandmother beats me by 179 points. My goal for that one meeting is simple: win one game. I lose my first two games, and after each one, G.I. Joel stops by my table and deftly points out all my mistakes. Unlike him, I do not go into hibernation for three months every year to memorize word lists, so I am not aware of words such as “OOT” and “MOXA.” I finally win by defeating Marlene, a benevolent writing teacher, thanks to the bingo (a word using all the tiles in a rack), “LORRIES,” worth 71 points. She hugs me after we add up the scores, making it even harder to savor my victory. I am slightly relieved by my lack of blood-thirsty vengeance, which affirms that I am not one of Them.
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Then I play Nikki. It is the final game of the night, and I am satisfied with my lone triumph. The game starts out surprisingly well as I score above 30 on my first four turns. Then the Fates bless me with “AMULETS” but nowhere to put it. An open spot never materializes, and Nikki goes on to play three bingos: “FLOUTING,” “SPIRALED,” and “FINALIZE.” She wins by over 200 points and later has the gall to ask me to help her clean up the board. I seethe with rage as I pick up the tiles, inwardly snarling each time our fingers touch. G.I. Joel strolls past our table and senses my indignation. In a disturbingly kind voice says, “I know how you feel.” Kate Gavino

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