One of my great preoccupations, as readers of this blog might assume, is playing with words. Spending a couple of hours with the NY Times Sunday crossword is a regular part of my week. Figuring out the theme of each one can be frustrating, of course, and I sometimes seek out help with individual squares or words. But for the most part, I find it immensely entertaining and satisfying.
I have long been an aficionado of the iconic word game Scrabble—and in recent years, with the similar online game Words With Friends. The first is played with the traditional board and tiles, which lends a pleasing tactile element to the game. The second is played on the internet, sometimes with actual friends, other times with complete strangers.
My online handle is anagramps, coupled with a photo of a Mesopotamian oracle, to identify me to opponents. The handle is intended to convey both my status as a grandpa, and my affinity for anagrams, an essential skill if one is to play the games successfully.
The photo is meant to be intimidating.
There is a feature in the online game to allow players to converse with each other via messages, but in my experience, that doesn’t happen very often. I’m sometimes tempted, when I’ve dropped a bombshell-word on an opponent, to type Sorry! with a rueful-looking emoji accompaniment (although I’m never actually sorry on those occasions).
Or, when my opponent has produced something similar against me, I occasionally have the urge to message a mock-angry Grrr!
I rarely do, however. Mercy is seldom shown on either side.
Over the years, I have become quite good at these games (if I may be permitted so immodest a claim). My winning percentage online is in the high .600’s, roughly double a high, major-league baseball batting average. I fully expect to win each game I play—although, in the interests of full-disclosure, I must confess I sometimes sulk when I do not.
It’s not pretty, that, but there it is.
In my own defense, I never gloat when I win. If it’s been a particularly close game, I often send a message of congratulations/condolences to my opponent, and a request for a return match. When I’ve won by a wide margin, I wait diplomatically to see if my opponent wants to challenge me to another match.
There are a very few players out there who bedevil me, winning matches with annoying frequency. One of those is my wife, another my daughter. It seems they draw especially good, high-scoring tiles when we oppose one another (or so I tell myself). Because the online game is based on algorithms, not random chance, I can occasionally convince myself the system is deliberately trying to take me down a peg or two.
My wife and daughter merely laugh.
It was with my wife, however—or rather, against her, and against her mother—that I had my greatest moment. I, a callow youth of nineteen, assiduously courting the lass who would become my life-partner, was playing a game of Scrabble at their home. Late in the game, I discovered a word I might play, using all seven letter-tiles, which would come with a fifty-point bonus. Not only that, but because there was already a letter on the board in the lower, left-side column I planned to use (an S from one of their earlier words), I would be able to start and end my word on a triple-word square. In my head, I totalled the score I was about to receive—558 points! Oh! My! Stars!
There was a problem, though. My future mother-in-law was still getting to know me, and I her. This was a critical sizing-up period for me. It was important that I not do anything to offend her, thus dooming my chances with her daughter. I had to think long and hard about whether to use the word, for fear of blowing everything.
The word was TESTICLE.
In the end, I seem to remember convincing myself that there were other girls in the world, but such a high-scoring opportunity might never come my way again! I’m sure I didn’t really think that, but it’s how I tell it these many years later.
In any case, I played the word, trying mightily to be nonchalant.
“What’s that?” my mother-in-law-to-be said. “Is that a word?”
Flustered by the questions, and fearing the loss of my points if the word was not deemed acceptable, I sputtered, “Yeah, of course.”
“What does it mean?” she said.
“What does it mean?” I repeated stupidly.
“Yes, what does it mean?”
I was too nonplussed in the moment to realize she was playing me. “It means…it means…you know…the private parts of a man’s…you know…reproductive system.” Sweat was beading on my forehead.
And then she broke into laughter, joined quickly by my future wife. “Okay,” she said, “as long as you know what it means.”
My immense relief and towering sense of accomplishment were short-lived, however. The two of them told me the rules were clear—the fifty-point bonus for using all seven tiles had to be added after, not before, the point-total of the word was tripled and re-tripled. Thus, my true total was 158, a colossal 400 short of my expectation.
But by then, I didn’t care. My status with my future in-laws was preserved, I had managed to play my perhaps-once-in-a-lifetime word without forsaking my betrothed, and…oh, yes, I won that game.
Anyway, if you are a devotee of Words With Friends, and if you care for an online game sometime, look for me—anagramps. I promise no R-rated words!