Scrabble

by dyketheelder

I essentially never play Scrabble any more. I refuse to play with anal retentives, and the people who want to play are characteristically thus. It will come as no surprise to DV’s if I say that I love words — as objects of both work and play. So, in some ways, I lament not playing Scrabble,

So, what’s the problem? Well, the problem is that I do love words. It delights me beyond reason, for example, that Claude Hopper is a big cheese in the world of white Gospel, and a protege of Jesse Helms. At any rate, I hate to see words mistreated. Scrabble is designed to degrade and denigrate words — in the service of venal gain. I want to choose and use words in terms of quality: expressivity, melifluity, strength, suggestiveness, goofyness. I love words whose history has thrust connections upon us that are by now thoroughly bogus, but open horizons to understanding nonetheless. A couple such that showed up in my reading yesterday were “cosmology” and “cosmetics”. Turns out, of course, that the ruptured link is that between beauty and order. For the ancients it was a serious question whether the universe they lived in was a cosmos. (Was fur ein question is that for us now?)

Scrabble encourages mingy Caledonian pursuit of quantitative profiteering. “How much is that word worth?”, we ask, and move a letter to see if there’s a double score sign under it. Worse, the game is competitive, so there’s profit in making it difficult for your opponent to make a good word, and loss in allowing him access to a doubling space of his own. The board fills with crabbed dead ends. Where’s the elegance in repressive denial? Nuff said.

As to my lament, I’ve actually thought about what could be done to get me to the Scrabble board. It may not be hopeless. Think of what you could make out of the materials you have at hand: a wonderful woven tapestry of beautiful words. Of course you’d create it cooperatively with the other players. The challenge of making something out of the random assortment you have at each move would be the same. However, the dominant strategy would be the creation of enabling conditions. Everyone would be concerned to give the best opportunity to the next player, given that her assortment would be limited too.

Evaluating the outcome of the game will be tricky — qualitative judgments always are: that’s traditionally one of the reasons why people seek to quantify them. But if you can do it in the arts, you can do it here as well. After all, there’ll be no issue of who wins or loses: everybody wins, or everybody loses any particular game. Finding a way to keep score is the road to ruining the game.

For those who need the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat to motivate them, it would be possible to rededicate the numbers on the tiles and the instructions on the special squares. For instance, you could set up efficiency objectives: the most beautiful tapestry at the minimal cost. “Triple word score” would be a pit of doom much to be avoided. But maybe not to be avoided at any cost, for there’s the existential thrill of the sacrifice move to consider. A really good word at a suicidal price.

Anyway, I think that this version of Scrabble could be elaborated. I doubt that it will be though. Were almost certainly have to carry on our affair with words elsewhere. Current politics is a promising possibility. Fantastic opportunities to join the goofy play of words are offered up to us daily. I’m sure the suggestion will send a cold chill up straight and rigid spines, but opportunity isn’t to be found just anywhere, and “Guignol” is a really neat word.

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4 Comments to “Scrabble”

  1. Building off the trailing plural, I’ve always been fascinated and repulsed by the people who want to add gambling to other games “to make them interesting.” Like the game itself isn’t interesting, like you couldn’t find a way to play it in a gambling style if you wanted to. I liked golf because it’s a game you can play a lot of ways (and pretty much have to, if you’re not great at any of them). You can hit safe shots and beautiful shots and risky shots and crazy shots. And for every asshole who tells you there’s one right way to swing the club there’s a Seve Ballesteros to show you there are dozens.

  2. There’s something imminently solipsistic about golf capable of being exploited (if you don’t crave company). “Aestheticizing” tennis, for example, requires some cooperation from an “opponent” — someone who can help make the game fun, but also make the whole thing really ugly, just as in Scrabble. This makes the choice of “a lot of ways” a social choice. I guess what I was after were the conditions that make social activities of all sorts competitive or cooperative. There’s hardly anything that doesn’t have both possibilities built in somehow. Politics is a good example. Market theory is a good example, say in Adam Smith, of an attempt to reconcile competition and cooperation by making it a non-issue. We now know that it fails, and line up along an ideological spectrum looking for another reconciliation. Or have we given up on that?

  3. Right. Golf works for the subversion and repurposing part straightforwardly, but for the social part you have to make the communing with nature move, or have an audience willing to engage with the game aesthetically. Although there’s quite a lovely four player variant called “best ball” where each of two teams get two shots and then play the best of the resulting balls. If all four played the best ball I think it would fit the discussion pretty well.

    Tim Gallwey did an inner game of golf book and there’s all kinds of Zen / Dao / meditative takes on the game. But Gallwey really stuck with me for his suggestion in the inner game of tennis that competition be reframed as a cooperative effort to bring out each other’s best. I always contrast that with the assholes who deliberately play ugly tennis so you’ll get frustrated and lose interest in playing on. Those can be the most unpleasant hours an otherwise civilized society permits.

    In class I sometimes explain to the jocks how much cooperation has to happen before and around and through them competing. They tend to think competition is human nature, so it’s all quite the revelation.

  4. One of the defining days in my whole life was the day you and I played in the doubles tournament at Highpoint.

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