Erikka Askeland: Nights on the tiles are not my kind of fun
Games should be fun and it really upsets me when they aren’t. And this may be a shock revelation but for this reason I don’t love the word game Scrabble.
See, the thing is, I make a crust with bashing out words in what I would guess is a reasonably sensible manner – although some of my colleagues have baulked at some of the more obscure expressions that sometimes extrude between my brain and fingers to the keyboard. And because I was raised speaking North American, sometimes words and phrases more common across the pond creep up from somewhere deep behind my eyes and make it onto the page.
For example, I quite like the word “peanut gallery” to denote less than respectful rabble rousers. It was derived from American vaudeville – not unlike end-of-the-pier variety style theatre – and it was the place from where the punters were able to throw salted snacks at performers of whom they didn’t approve. Here, you would call them the cheap seats. And while usually I revel in the playful ways Brits use language, I think the Yanks win this one for being more evocative.
The problem is the general expectation that I would be good at Scrabble. All my thinking about words and perhaps having a larger than average vocabulary means I can probably hold my own. But anyone who has played Scrabble knows that while these traits are useful, an appreciation of language and meaning are much less beneficial than a strategy to achieve a maximum score.
Which isn’t to say I haven’t enjoy playing the game. It is just the sheer annoyance when, having waited to get the right letter tile to complete a juicy, seven-letter word (bonus!), some genius scores a billion points by combining a horizontal “xu” – a Vietnamese coin – with a perpendicular “xi” – a Greek letter, on a triple word square. Because every serious Scrabble player has, not a wide and nuanced appreciation of the language, but a memorised list of short words with high scoring letters that, as far as I’m concerned, take the fun out of it. And there are some very serious Scrabble players out there. This weekend will see the 22nd annual British Matchplay Scrabble Championship take place in Stafford. Organisers estimate more than 150 competitors will compete in the hope of taking home some of the £3,000 prize fund.
In the even bigger stakes US version, which took place earlier this month in Orlando, Florida, the winner took $10,000. And while the Kiwi security analyst who bagged to prize was probably much more interested in the bragging rights, he also clears about $200,000 a year just playing the game.
But the simmering resentments under the usually calm game boiled over when a 13-year-old contestant was found having palmed some blanks – the tiles that have no score but are highly useful as they function as any letter. And while most contests are enlivened by an adherence to the rules, it is something that Scrabble players seem to take even more seriously.
Yet while I am sniffy about how dedicated players sacrifice elegance for word tricks, most players are still fixated with extreme language.
When playing with amateurs, what often makes a match interesting is the challenge. Across the kitchen table, behind the tiny wooden trestle that holds the tiles, a face darkens with suspicion: “that’s not a word”. And when you attempt to defend use of “bumfreezer” you must have recourse to an authority.
In English language competition, the bible is called the SOWPODS – a somewhat awkward combination of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD) and the Collins’ Official Scrabble Words (OSW). Each year, the dictionary must by necessity include new words in order to prevent families from causing bodily harm to each other over the Scrabble board. New ones this year include some lovely gems of words – awfy (awfully), linkrot (expired website hyperlinks) and moobs (if you need an explanation, ask your dad).
Actually, I may just dig up my Scrabble board. It all sounds like good fun.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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