People slowly filed in with large round cases. One woman’s case was wheeled, like a suitcase. They set their cases on tables and pulled out custom turntable Scrabble boards, timers, tile bags, and racks. They got out their scoring sheets and personal tokens. The games started and the room hushed. —Roxane Gay, from “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically.”I am terrible at word games of all sorts, always have been. Years ago, before I refused to participate any longer, if I played Scrabble with three other people, I came in fourth; if playing with two, I came in third; though if I played Scrabble one-on-one, at least I came in second. Once, when my wife Alma was in labor with our first child, to pass away the time between her contractions we played Scrabble with our birthing coach and, well, you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?
Crushed, utterly crushed in Scrabble by a woman suffering through the pains of giving birth.
I am also terrible at Boggle. I have a clear memory of playing with Alma and our daughter Hannah, then ten years old, and failing miserably to come up with a decent list of words. Last again.
No one is perfect, everyone has a weakness, but I am a writer. Language is supposed to be my well-equipped kitchen, words my fully stocked refrigerator. Yet when it comes to word games all I can do is boil water. So there came a time when I refused to continue pushing across a board the tiles of my humiliation. As for the Daily Jumble: Out of my Life! I write books, I told myself, I don’t need no stinkin’ games, and I had no ambitions to write a story, essay, memoir or novel that included the words slojd, immix, or qindarka.
But still, I have often wondered and worried, shouldn’t I be more word-curious? Would I be a better writer if I memorized spelling lists, massaged more whatever lobe of the brain cradles all those obscure words? As for humiliation, it can, on occasion, be good for the soul . . .
So a couple of years ago, when I learned during a Ninth Letter editorial meeting that the writer Roxane Gay competes in Scrabble tournaments, a deep vein of curiosity and dread was tapped, and I said “Hey, let’s contact her and ask if she’d be interested in writing an essay about that for us.”
Turns out she was, and soon her essay “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically” arrived, complete with a batch of lively footnotes, and we accepted it as close to instantly as one can get in literary magazine editing.
I had never known that Scrabble players could be competitive with a capital C, probably because I had never bothered to consider any such possibility. So for me, learning of the existence of the North American Scrabble Players Association and the Official Tournament and Club Word List was an anthropological experience, a discovery of a pocket community’s culture and local common sense, guided by a deeply embedded and eloquent participant observer. And now I know, just for starters, that there is “a proper etiquette” for picking tiles from the bag, and a particular “procedure” if too many tiles have been drawn.
New in an unfamiliar town with a new job, far from family and her boyfriend, Roxane Gay had begun descending slowly into lonely crazy until she was invited to join a local Scrabble club (there are over 200 in the U.S., she tells us elsewhere). A first-rate writer who is also an actual word game enthusiast, Gay turns this lifeline into a healthy obsession, and before long she’s competing in her first tournament. Call it newbie’s luck, but after Gay’s first few games garner her two losses and only one win, she somehow finds “the delusion of confidence,” declares to a friend that she will win the tournament, and then she does! Reading of her triumph I could imagine cheerleaders standing on the sidelines, swinging pom-pom circles for her (though I’m fairly certain that the bylaws of the North American Scrabble Players Association wouldn’t permit this). This early success, unfortunately, was not a reliable indicator of future competitive Scrabble glory.
Gay peoples her essay with snap portraits of the quirks of fellow players, particularly those she dubs her “nemeses.” Here we find bad sportsmanship, gloating, false modesty, emotional witchcraft and a kind of Scrabble facial vogueing. To attend a Scrabble tournament is to be surrounded by crowds of people who do not want to lose. “Scrabble players love to talk, at length, with repetition, about their vocabulary triumphs,” Gay writes, and she herself is not immune to this habit. We hear of her snagging 90 points for TRIPLEX, she gives us a list of a string of her winning scores (“389-312; 424-244; 352-312; 396-366”), but she’s also not hesitant about detailing her losses and, sometimes, her simply dumb tactical decisions. “Time and again, lower ranked players taught me painful lessons,” she admits, and a good part of the pleasure reading of Gay’s adventures comes from her engagingly self-deprecating persona.
Roxane Gay’s beautifully written essay, dead serious and yet often head-shakingly funny, is a tale not of triumph but of hard-fought parity at best, since over the long haul the odds in competitive Scrabble seem more akin to blackjack or roulette. Those little arenas of board space with their branching designs of tiles serve as a metaphor of fate, which is why they can provoke so many competitors to batty behavior, but they also provide a training ground for coping with life’s larger setbacks or how best to accept the occasional clear sky.
Spurred by Gay’s joy of the fray, I finally gave in to my wife’s repeated suggestions that I download Words with Friends, which is a kind of baby Scrabble. Whether on an iPhone or iPad, the electronic board is for my eyes only, and when the app silently announces that my desperate five-letter flail of JOVID is “not an acceptable word,” no penalty is involved. I can take as long as I want to puzzle out a move, and games can often stretch over several days. I still get whipped fairly regularly. But I’ve learned to shrug off defeat, nurse my wounds, and plot revenge.
Roxane Gay’s essay, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily” was published in Ninth Letter, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2012-13). Her essay has been included in the list of “Notable Essays of 2012” by Robert Atwan and Cheryl Strayed, the editors of the Best American Essays 2013 anthology.
Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Braided Worlds, the second volume of a memoir of Africa co-authored with his wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb. His short story collections The Art of the Knock and Interior Design and novel How to Read an Unwritten Language will be reprinted in Dzanc Books’ contemporary fiction e-book reprint series in late 2013.
Graham’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Washington Post Magazine, North American Review, Paris Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he is a co-founder and the current editor-at-large of the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter. He also teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing. His short essays on the craft of writing can be found at www.philipgraham.net
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