Word Games People Play

In real life, it’s not easy to find Scrabble players. A lot of people don’t like Scrabble because they have a fear of spelling, which is not an official phobia. Back in the day, the masses had little fear of spelling because they were illiterate. When literacy did catch up to the masses, spelling was functional and arbitrary; for example, both frind or frend were correct, and also sworde or swerde. Rules about spelling didn’t began to be standardized until around 1750 when Samuel Johnson made the subject academic with the publication of his dictionary.

In that terrible moment, spelling became a subject at which people could fail. Education usurped spelling and mandated that students memorize the official version of a word and reproduce it upon demand, which caused anxiety and probably rebellion. I can imagine renegade students throughout history who committed to misspelling as an act of liberation and defiance.

On the other hand, the world takes all kinds. For those of us who like competition, spelling is another way to win. Who doesn’t want to win first place at the spelling bee and become the orthographic queen? Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to find people who like to play Scrabble in real life; the winners of all the spelling bees in the world are scattered coast to coast and even on other continents. Fortunately, it’s easy to find competitive spellers online who, like me, enjoy playing and winning games like Scrabble.

Sometimes I spell a beautiful word, like lotus, and earn a modest five points. In online play, I don’t get to choose my tiles; an algorithm doles them out, and I play whatever I’m given. Sometimes I end up with all vowels. Then there’s the pleasure of receiving high-value letters like Q, Z, and K, all of which can be played strategically to earn a bonanza score, as well as enhancing my vocabulary with two-letter words like ki and ka, qi and za. At the other end of the spectrum are seven-letter words, the equivalent of bingo in Scrabble, which are worth an extra fifty points. In order to access bonus squares, I play words strategically to open up the board. Play that benefits me might also benefit my opponent, a tenet of game theory.

The word opponent in Scrabble doesn’t necessarily mean enemy. My opponents online include people I know in real life and people I don’t. One opponent is my sister, who lives halfway across the country. We play online at the pace of a word or two a day, just often enough to signal we’re both still alive. We don’t chat; our game is like waving to someone you pass in a hallway. I don’t really care if I win or lose, though I win ninety percent of the time. Sometimes I play a social game with my friend, the retired professor, or my friend, the former student.

When I play with opponents I don’t know in real life, the first consideration is their ranking. My own ranking (in the Scrabble-type game Wordscraper) ranges from 1400-1800; I look for players with similar stats. I will only play on a “standard” board at “medium” speed, and I don’t engage in conversation other than the polite “good luck” or “good game,” to show that I’m a good sport. On occasion, an opponent will try to start a chat, but I rarely feel compelled to respond. I’ve never had an opponent try to sext me, but if I did, I could quit the game and report the perpetrator. Sometimes opponents are stingy, stacking up two-letter words like they’re hoarding tiles. Some opponents play obscure words, words I’ve never seen or heard before even though my vocabulary is extensive. I often suspect a “word generator,” an app that allows my opponent to key in their letters to generate the highest-scoring play.

Some people think using a “word generator” app is cheating, but it’s not a problem for me. Even when my opponent appears to be using an app, I sometimes win the game. Not every app can beat every Scrabble player all the time. And as game theory suggests, the strategies that benefit my opponent might also benefit me. Learning obscure words can only improve my game in the future, words like quoin, litten, mae, lums, and ogee. To help me remember new and unfamiliar words, I occasionally look up their definitions. The word ogee, for example, refers to an architectural feature we’ve all seen: the diagonal ribs of molding that make a pointed arch, often found in cathedrals. An ogee is also a type of drill bit used to cut decorative arched patterns in molding. Mostly ogee refers to a shape that has definition but also varies.

Before I knew the word ogee, I would have just said “pointed arch.” Acquiring new words is one of the pleasures of playing Scrabble. Maybe it’s no surprise that there are so many word games online, not just Scrabble, but Boggle, crossword puzzles, hangman, and word search games, among others. Not everyone is a spelling-phobe. For those of us who like spelling games, most of us like to win, though losing isn’t the end of the world. Just ask my sister. She accepts my invitation to play Scrabble every time.

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