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When Sharks Play Scrabble, It’s Not All Fun and Games

There are two kinds of Scrabble players--people who play a friendly game and real players who want to tear their opponents’ hearts out, even as they earn 50 extra points for putting down all seven of their letters.

As to my own approach to the game, let me confess that at some point during his adolescence my son stopped playing Scrabble with me and his father because the lad hates blood sports.

He seems to think, in spite of years of watching his parents play, that board games are supposed to be fun, not occasions to nuke your enemy--that is, anyone who dares to play against you--with your superior vocabulary and superb strategic skill. Go figure.

The third Tuesday of the month is Scrabble night at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Northridge. Management goes all out for its players, supplying them with deluxe versions of the 63-year-old game (complete with turntables), Scrabble dictionaries and enough candy, tea and coffee to keep them keenly alert as they calculate how many U’s are still out and other things that only Scrabble players care about.

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In case you grew up on a distant star, Scrabble is the trademarked and copyrighted word game in which letter tiles, given numerical values from 1 to 10, are used to form interlocking words, crossword fashion. About 33 million Americans play the game, more than 10,000 seriously enough to have joined clubs affiliated with the National Scrabble Assn.

At Barnes & Noble on this evening, two pairs hunch over tables set up between rows of books. At one, a man and a woman play. She is a statistician. He doesn’t want to reveal his occupation, but let’s just say that he tried very hard to find an S on the board so he could lay down C-U-R-E-T-T-E.

Scrabble players are nothing if not verbal. Bobbi, one of the two women at the more loquacious table, spells her last name for me: “Z as in Zany, I, T as in Toenail, O as in Orenthal.”

“We’re not cutthroat,” say Zito and her partner, Eva-Lynn Ratoff. As they see it, the statistician and the man who knows what a curette is and how to use one, they’re cutthroat.

As were two women who once surfaced on Scrabble night, to the horror of Zito and Ratoff.

“They were Scrabble sharks,” Zito says. Janice Kent, the store’s community relations coordinator, remembers the pair and is even harsher in her evaluation. She resorts to the universal language of laundermats to find a metaphor pungent enough to capture the mean- spiritedness of the Scrabble sharks.

“They were,” she says, “the kind of women who take your laundry out before it’s dry.”

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Ratoff wins their first game, 278 to 248.

Then, as in a spaghetti western, the Mysterious Stranger appears.

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Geoff, not his real name, is a writer and a serious Scrabble player who competes several times a week against human or computer.

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How serious is he? Geoff once managed to parlay O-B-L-I-Q-U-E, laid in the right place on the right board, into “170-something points.” He routinely scores more than 500 points when playing Scrabble with one other player (the record of 770, in tournament play, was set by Mark Landsberg of Los Angeles).

Geoff sits down with Zito and Ratoff and plays his opening gambit, K-A-I-D-S, for 30 points.

“What is it?” one of the women asks.

“A Muslim something,” Geoff answers.

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“Omigod,” says Ratoff. “What do you do?” asks Zito.

“I go around from bookstore to bookstore, hustling Scrabble,” Geoff replies.

Geoff takes it upon himself to make sure his word is legit by checking it in the Scrabble dictionary. For this he is a mensch. Claiming words are real when they are not is a time-honored Scrabble tactic, called bluffing. The rule is that unless your fellow players challenge your word and find you out, bluffing is OK.

Neither Zito nor Ratoff challenged, but K-A-I-D-S is not in the Scrabble dictionary. The word Geoff was thinking of was C-A-I-D-S, meaning Muslim leaders. Geoff manfully withdraws kaids and lays down M-A-S-K-E-D for 32.

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“We’ve never played with someone with that kind of integrity,” Zito says.

“We’re screwed,” adds Ratoff.

The game moves on until the women have just a letter or two left and are trying to find a place on the board to put them. Ratoff is trying to unload a T and an A.

Geoff graciously advises her to add them to a U already on the board.

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U-T-A “is a French something,” he counsels.

Actually, it’s a large lizard, but in Scrabble, what a word means is never as important as what it’s worth.

To the surprise of no one, the evening’s Scrabble prize goes to Geoff, who manages to score a highly respectable 298 against the two women. It’s a Barnes & Noble tote bag with a picture of William Shakespeare on it.

After all, it was Shakespeare, wasn’t it, who said a rose by any other name is worth three times as much if you can put it on a triple-word score.

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