There are some challenges in life for which you’ve had years to prepare--swallowing Mom’s Passover gefilte fish without actually tasting it comes to mind. Then there are those challenges that come out of nowhere and knock you on your butt, such as last week when I played Scrabble at the Granada Hills Jewish Community Center with my 82-year-old Grandma.
To be more precise, I spent three humiliating hours with a group of people who know the meaning of usque (a Scottish variation of whiskey, in case you were wondering).
They’re members of the Dee Mandeson San Fernando Valley Scrabble Club--officially sanctioned by the National Scrabble Assn. as Club No. 69--and they meet once a week in a classroom at the community center.
Grandma Ruth hadn’t been there in awhile. She’d been busy playing mah-jongg on Monday nights and card games every other night with friends in her Sherman Oaks apartment building. And she’d been working part time as a messenger, traversing the freeways in her Oldsmobile to deliver legal documents to courthouses from Lancaster to Anaheim.
But the Northridge quake changed everything. Grandma’s building was condemned, she and her friends were scattered in apartments all over the city and after 38 years, the mah-jongg game was no more. The messenger business has been a little slow too.
Grandma, however, isn’t one to sit around and sulk, so she decided to try Scrabble again. When she invited me to join her, I said, “OK. Sounds like fun. Let’s grab some dinner first.”
I hadn’t played Scrabble in ages, but figured: How tough could it be? I’m a writer. I have a decent handle on the English language. It wasn’t like we were going to the Calculus Club.
Grandma and I tanked up on corn fritters and chocolate mousse at the Sizzler salad bar, then drove to the center. A dozen people showed up, and we were paired off for Game 1. My opponent was Susie Page. I knew this because it said so in gold letters on her personally engraved Scrabble timer.
Susie, a 61-year-old Panorama City resident who raises Burmese cats, explained the rules:
Each player gets a total of 25 minutes per game. After you make your move, you hit the timer and the clock starts ticking on your opponent. If you exceed the 25-minute limit, you start losing points.
We selected our tiles and the game began.
At first I tried to ignore the timer, but that was impossible. Tick tick tick tick tick became TICK TICK TICK TICK TICK, which became TICK! TICK! TICK! TICK! TICK!
Meanwhile, Susie was using approximately six seconds per play.
“You’re fast,” I said.
“I’m very fast,” she replied.
I stared at the tiles on my rack, desperately trying to form a word-- any word--but the ticking was making me crazy. My breathing became erratic and the letters began to look like Russian. Our game went something like this:
Before I knew it, Susie had run out of tiles and beaten me 439-205. I’d used up 24 of my 25 minutes. Susie had used up eight.
The members of Club No. 69, I quickly learned, are people who take their Scrabble seriously. They are people who wake up in the middle of the night wondering if ocreae is a word. (Indeed, it is.) They are people, most of them retired, who play Scrabble on Wednesdays in Eagle Rock and Saturdays in West L.A. and fly to Reno for regional tournaments.
They know that cwm is a Welsh word meaning “a deep, steep-walled basin” and that brrr is an acceptable spelling of brr . They know that the Scrabble Assn. recently sanctioned eight new two-letter words.
“One of them is ag ,” said club president Deborah Sapot, who has played Scrabble since the game was invented in 1954. “It’s short for agronomics. But you can’t pluralize it. You can’t make it ags . You have to know those things.”
For Game 2, I was matched against Mollie, whom Grandma had beaten in the first game, despite the fact that Mollie plays Scrabble on her home computer every day. To my relief, Mollie wasn’t the speed demon that Susie was. She was beating me quite handily, but I was getting used to the ticking and felt like I was getting into the groove of the game. My sense of calm was short-lived.
Ten minutes into the game, I placed down what I thought was the word quiet. Immediately, Mollie shouted, “Challenge!”
My heart pounded. My face turned hot and red. I felt like I’d been arrested. But for what? What was my crime?
Alas, I had inadvertently left out a tile. In all my excitement over putting down a five-letter word, I had spelled out qiet .
(“Challenge” is what you say when you suspect your opponent has tried to get away with a bogus word. Some people deliberately play “phonies,” as they’re called, but clearly I’d made an honest mistake. It wasn’t as if I were trying to pass off qiet as a legitimate word, although, Lord knows, it’s probably some Irish term “of or pertaining to a genus of mosquito.”)
“Oops,” I said innocently. “Let me fix that.”
“You lose a turn,” Mollie said. “Those are the rules.”
Lest I go home feeling discouraged. Deborah, the club president, went to her car and returned with the “Updated Complete Three-Letter Word List,” a sheet of paper containing the 961 three-letter words authorized by Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.
“Study this,” she said.
At which point, I turned to Grandma and told her to choose a restaurant for next week.