Tuesday, May 27, 2008

scrabble as a relationship metaphor

Posted by jedijawa
Raf brings up some very interesting points in his most recent Scrabble blog post. Reading what Raf wrote, I have to say that I've noticed some interesting changes in the way that I play Scrabble over the last 5 years. I guess that I have recently become acutely aware of this during a series of events including the informal meeting at our club director's home last month. See, when I first started playing a lot of Scrabble it was with my ex-wife and we played whenever we could find a few minutes since we had it on our Palm Pilots. It was easy, fast, and fun. In the beginning I thumped her a lot because I knew how to use the special extra point squares, but the ex soon learned how to use those spots too and our games became fierce as we each tried to play the game of cat and mouse as we did battle for those special squares. She played what I like to call "scorched earth Scrabble" because if she couldn't use one of the red triple word score squares she would block it so that I couldn't use it either. Thus, over time, our boards became locked down and clumped together much like this Scrabble board below. Usually a good half of the board was unusable with this method as our two and three letter word plays would be designed to extract maximum points without opening much for the next player.

I have come to think of this practice as Scrabble jujitsu as what each turn meant was that any inch I gave up would be capitalized upon by my opponent. Yet, without opening up the board the chance to gain points would be diminished as there are only so many plays that you can make using the three letter ladder pattern. There were games where we had a very hard time using all of our tiles because of the peculiar way that the board locks up with this style of play. Increasingly, I found myself trying to make sacrifice plays of little points to open the board so that more plays could be made. It would always frustrate me when I would make such a play and have her immediately lock the board down again by playing a play that blocked the opening that I had just made for us to expand to a new part of the board. In many ways I've come to see this as a metaphor for my relationship with her. The more that I tried to evolve our level of play the more she stubbornly tried to lock it down and keep it contained. It became increasingly frustrating and the play became more tense, quieter, and much less fun in those late days of our relationship.

When I first read Word Freak by Stephan Fatsis about 3 years ago I started to see new ways that I could play the game and new ways to open up my level of play. However, I had to be careful about doing this. My ex had told me that she didn't want me studying Scrabble strategies because if I started to win more than she did it would no longer be fun for her. Yet, the game, much like our relationship, was already not as fun for me. I started looking for places to play words that were larger than 3 or 4 letters. As I started dropping 5 and 6 letter words it did change my game play and it made her uncomfortable. She could sense the change in my style and continued to exploit my plays by milking points and punishing my new open style. When I would boldly open a red triple word score she would continue to grab it or block it while I looked for larger plays which sometimes payed off and sometimes didn't. When the gambit did pay off and I scored a bingo it incensed her and she would often exclaim that she should just give up the game. In the end ... it was me that gave up. I gave up trying to contain myself within the confines of our relationship which she struggled to lock down and control much like our Scrabble games. In that last year she tried to block just about everything that I did ... whether it was Scrabble, running in races and triathlons, playing in a local band, or even trying to push me into a different job away from my cherished co-worker friends.

Then I moved back to WV and for a year my Scrabble game sat dormant as I rarely played. However, when I picked up with the WV Scrabble club my style of play was allowed to flourish and I never went back to the old way that I had played with the three letter ladders to nowhere. Instead, I find myself enjoying the more open style of play. In many ways my new play style is a metaphor for my new life which is more open and carefree than it had been in Ohio. Now my boards look more like the one on the left and most of our club games look this way. Sometimes I will play someone who is still playing for the 2 and 4 letter words and I am reminded of the example from my prior life. Yes, it is still frustrating when I play Raf and he thumps me by playing a tough and defensive Scrabble game. Yet, I'm okay with that because I like my new style. I like laying down 5 or 6 tiles even if it isn't going to net me a lot of points because when I get to lay a bingo down hooking it onto one of those previous plays I know that I'm breaking through to a new level of play and that I'm seeing the board in a completely different way.

Brad, my club director, once referred to this new style of play as "aggressive" but I think that it's just me flexing my mental muscle and taking the chances of my gambit backfiring on me. In that particular game I ended up thumping Brad ... not that he didn't come back and thump me worse ... but it still felt good and it felt like I had made real progress in my game. I'm not consistent anymore ... but over time I may end up getting there again. But when I watch Brad play he isn't consistent either. His turn scores are all over the place since he is looking for the big scores. He is much better situated for that than I am but I will continue to improve by baby steps until I get to yet another new place over time. For now, I like where I am and where I think that I'm headed. I have tried to explain this new way of thinking to people and this is about the best way that I can think of to describe it. It may not work for everyone, but it seems to work for me.


  1. Um ... hello ... is this thing on?

  2. Wha...??? Oh, I'm sorry. I quit smoking pot back in my early 20's so it was hard for me to wrap my head around this...man.


    Actually, I've just been too freaked out about how to downsize my too-giant living (utility sucking) space to focus on anything else.

  3. First, I think this is a great blog. I'm from the Lexington KY club and I'm envious that you all have such a great online presence!

    Second, great post. I've also wondered about the correlation between people's style of play and their personalities in general. My ex and I split long before I discovered Scrabble, and she never played either, but from her risk-averse personality it's easy for me to imagine her being a closed-board style of player.

    That said, I think it's only natural for new players with relatively low word knowledge to gravitate toward closed stairstep boards. It took me a while to be able to make even 5 or 6 letter words from RETAINS-style racks with much consistency. I think anagramming is definitely a skill that doesn't come naturally for most folks, and that it has to be developed with practice.

    Once I did get better at anagramming, and learning some longer words at the same time, my game also transformed as I learned to take risks and open up the board. I'd rather take the points, and let my opponent be the one having to rely on the luck of having the right tiles for a strong comeback play. Over a large number of games (something that playing on ISC has afforded me the opportunity to see), you're statistically better off that way, and you learn that this strategy will backfire at times (sometimes majorly), but it will win a higher percentage of games overall.

    The other biggest factor in improving my game has been making a concerted effort to learn the 4-letter words. It's been a massive effort (for me at least; studying daily for almost a year, to get to what I estimate about 99% there at this point), but well worth it, since they're often the best way to dump high-point tiles for high-scoring (30-40 point) plays while setting up for bingoes. Plus I've found that not many players, even some in the 1400-1600 range, have a very good command of the 4s, so you can pick up a lot of free challenges along the way.

  4. How's that Lexington Scrabble Club blog coming along, Steve?


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