For the love of the game: We know it’s hard to believe, but playing Scrabble is even more exciting than it looks. photo by Margaret Williams

You have to be a little WUD to play Scrabble. For those of us who haven’t memorized the 1,000 or so three-letter “important words to raise your score” on a handout distributed by the Asheville Scrabble Club, that’s a seven-point way of saying INSANE.

I got a copy of the “cheat sheet” recently at Asheville’s Books-A-Million (136 S. Tunnel Rd.), where the club convenes each Sunday at 1 p.m. I was there to play, having many fond memories of playing the game and a notion that I wasn’t too bad with words.

But when I proudly told club co-founder Dr. Bill Snoddy that I was a writer, with graduate studies in literature under my belt, he said, “This is a different set of words.”

I looked at the list he gave me and felt a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole: KAE, HILI, CWM, ZA, ZYME, DOXY and AECIA, just to name a few. For every odd two-letter, three-letter or U-less Q-word I recognized, there appeared to be 50 I’d never before encountered.

So first I watched people play. They were library-quiet, seated in pairs around custom-made boards fastened to wooden lazy susans. The most notable sound took me back to the 1960s, when I would listen and watch as my parents played the game with my aunt Elaine and Uncle Danny: the seashell click of tiles as players reached into bags to grab letters.

In tournament Scrabble, however, there’s also the persistent sound of players hitting their clocks as soon as they’ve played a word and announced their score. In this competitive twist on the two-person game, each player gets 25 minutes, seconds ticking away each turn.

The clock did me in. It’s fairly quiet, really, but as I stared at my rack of seven letters, I had the feeling it beat like that heart in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Telltale Heart.

If it weren’t for the kindness of veteran players such as 83-year-old Ben Scott, I would have run overtime every game (you lose 10 points for every minute or fraction thereof). Scott, a retired physics professor born in England, tried to teach me a few things. When I attempted a word after many agonizing minutes, he admonished me against wasting my blank tile for anything less than at least a 20-point score. “It’s too valuable to squander,” he said, in a fatherly British accent. Scott let me try again. I saved the blank, while he stopped the clock and handed me a copy of Joel Sherman’s “Newbie’s First Scrabble Lesson” to read.

“Don’t play scared,” it said. Ha! I thought (and noted that HA is one of those two-letter words allowed in Scrabble). Sherman’s article also suggested, “Accept the idea that Scrabble is a math game just as much as it is a word game. All the strategic theory of the game is based on statistical analysis, probabilities, spatial relationships on the board, maximizing the value of small-numbered tiles by playing bingos (using all seven tiles on your rack to earn the 50-point bonus), and large-numbered tiles by causing them to interact with the colored premiums square on the board, or with other words on the board.”

No problem.

Gentle Ben could only laugh when I later squandered two blanks to play SWEARS for a mere 32 points. “You shouldn’t have done it,” Scott said. He went on to beat me by the seemingly close margin of 50 points. It could have been worse: I later watched Scott best another opponent by scoring 94 points for BASKING, then racking up 73 more by tagging an S to the end of BET to form CURIOUS.

I asked Scott to share his earliest memories of Scrabble, created during the Great Depression by architect Alfred Moser Butts. “I used to play with my sisters in the 1950s,” says Scott. While most Brits recall 1964 as the year Beatlemania went global, Scott summons a very different association: It was the year he purchased his first “fancy” board — a turntable game with plastic tiles and racks that let your keep score with pegs.

Scott also mentioned that he used to play with a “young” woman of 99 years, when he lived and taught in Pennsylvania. “She only packed it in when she couldn’t see the board any more.”

Asheville club regular Ray Smith remembers playing with his grandmother when he was young, but says he didn’t really get back into the game until four years ago. According to Smith, the Asheville club boasts at least one “expert” player. Of his own skills, he says, “I’m fairly good, and these people hand me my head every week.”

That would explain a certain light-headedness I felt after my second Sunday of playing and chatting with players like Scott, Smith, artist Glen English, and iridologist Kashyra Asnani. I was beginning to see a certain beauty in playing a word like ZYZZYVA, a bingo worth at least 73 points before you even placed it on a double-word, triple-letter or other premium space. But when Smith played IRON and I found myself staring at it and breaking it into impossible syllables (I-RON) and wondering what the heck it meant, I knew it was time to go home for Sunday dinner.

Snoddy commiserated, telling me that one of the newbie mistakes is pronouncing words and getting confused, such as staring at RESTING and wondering if it’s on the list of allowable RE- words as RE-STING.

Word fatigue aside, he assured me there are numerous ways to improve one’s game. The six-letter combo RETINA, for example, “has one of the highest probabilities for a bingo,” Snoddy explained. Many of the best players will memorize dozens of words like RETINA and the bingos that go with them: Simply remember the phrase, “The red pupil prefers much winking.” Any single letter in that phrase can create a seven-letter bingo when combined with the six letters in RETINA, Snoddy said.

Add a P, and you can create PAINTER, REPRINT and PERTAIN. “That’s only three of those [with P], so that’s easy to memorize,” he added. If you get a letter that’s not in the phrase, such as Y, you needn’t waste your valuable time on trying to come up with a bingo.

HM, I think. Perhaps I should stick with learning a few three-letter words for now. English beat me up with innocent little three-letter words like KIN and KAE (it’s a kind of crow). I could also dream of replicating one of Snoddy’s fondest Scrabble achievements: scoring 242 points for playing the bingo DISQUIET in his first tournament (he hit two triple-word scores with this one, sandwiching his seven letters around an opponent’s lay.)

For me, it’s back to pondering ZYZZYVA, a tropical weevil, probably diminutive in reality, but larger than life on the Scrabble board.

[Margaret Williams is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

The Asheville Scrabble Club holds its first local tournament Nov. 11-12 at Days Inn (201 Tunnel Road), from 9 a.m. to end both days. Spectators are welcome. Info: Dr. Bill Snoddy at DrWilliamR@aol.com.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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