I learned to play Scrabble from a grandmother who didn’t cut kids any slack when it came to this game she loved. When I finally learned to play at her level, it felt great. Until it didn’t.
I was eight years old when I first played Scrabble with Grandma and lost that game by more than a hundred points. “Don’t be discouraged, Mike. It’s all in the tiles you draw. Sometimes you draw good ones and sometimes all you get are the stinkers.” For the next decade or so she avoided the stinkers with amazing regularity. Grandma was an awesome Scrabble player who played to win no matter how young her opponent. She worked those little wooden tiles with the skill of a surgeon and confidence of a concert pianist. She would extend my DOG into DOGMATIC, my CAT into CATHARTIC. Questionable words were challenged before the last tile could hit the board. And she was always so certain whether or not a word was in the dictionary, I would wonder if she had it memorized.
Few of my siblings would come back for a second game. But I was always up for a game of Scrabble at Grandma’s house next door and she was always up for a win. Part of what brought me back was the simple joy of observing talent. Grandma was skillful at many things—gardening, knitting, cooking—but her mastery of Scrabble impressed me most of all. And while many good people surrounded me in my childhood, nobody else struck me as being an expert as she did. Going back for another game was like going back to the theater or concert hall or big league ballpark. We enjoy watching talent at work and she had plenty.
It was more than Grandma’s performance that kept me coming back. Something told me that Scrabble was something I could learn, that one day I might impress others the way she so impressed me, if only I kept working at it. And as Grandma’s inveterate sparring partner I got quite a workout. I learned two-letter words with virtually no relevance outside the game, words like EM and EN and AA. I learned the word QUEUE at a comparatively young age, as well as what it means to GIRD your loins, to DUN a debtor, and to DRUB your opponent. I learned Scrabble strategy: Always aim for the pink squares that double your word score. Never play a word that puts your opponent within reach of a red triple-word square. And never, ever play the letter U early in the game—it’s always good to have one if you draw the Q.
What drew Grandma to Scrabble? Its demand for intellect and knowledge had something to do with it. As an adult she had a penchant for developing herself intellectually—by enrolling in business colleges, reading voraciously, frequenting museums. She considered knowledge the only permanent possession. “They can take everything away from you, Mike, your house, your money. But nobody can take away what you know.” Grandma grew up at the hands of a monster of a father, in an unenviable immigrant household where possessions were fleeting. She watched her father destroy her few and favorite trinkets in fits of rage. She came home from school one day to an empty house—her father had moved the family and not bothered to tell her. Is it any wonder she always played Scrabble to win? Was it not an opportunity to show off the knowledge in which she had so much pride?
As happens to one who studies with a master, Grandma’s skill at Scrabble did eventually begin to rub off on me. I started using words like EM and AA myself. I was careful to save any U until the difficult Q had been played, and if a word might put her within reach of a triple word square I wouldn’t play it—no matter how many points it was worth. I began losing by reasonable margins, then by just a point or two. Then, when I was in high school, I won my very first game of Scrabble with Grandma.
It was a heady achievement that left me in something like a state of shock. I don’t remember details of the game but I do remember wondering how she might react. Would she check the math on the score sheet? Attribute the win to a dubious word that should have been challenged? She did neither. “Nice game, Mike. Those were some clever words you played.” Grandma was a good sport about losing to me, attributing only her own wins to luck-of-the-draw and never my own.
My skills continued to improve over time and before long I was winning as many games as was she. Our games continued even after I moved half a continent away, when a Scrabble match became a mutual expectation of my every visit. My mother became our standard third player. Mom’s vocabulary was every bit as good as Grandma’s and mine but she didn’t give a whit for strategy. For instance, she would not hesitate to place a word that gave a triple-word scoring opportunity to the next player. This tendency did not go unnoticed by Grandma and me. As play moves clockwise in Scrabble, we developed a shameless ritual prior to each game in which we would jockey—oh so innocently—for the seat to Mom’s left, where those valuable openings would be ours.
It often amazes me I have any talent at all for Scrabble because it requires something I don’t have: a good memory. Memory in general has never been my strong suit. (Have I told you this before? I have? Are you certain?) But somehow I do remember words, especially interesting ones. Did you know there is a word abecedarian? It’s a person learning something, such as the alphabet. How about navvy? That’s a laborer on a canal or railroad, short for navigator in a sense that word is no longer used. You may know these words, of course, and wonder how one who fancies himself a writer finds them extraordinary. That’s okay. It doesn’t bother me that I’m the last person to learn a word, I still enjoy learning it.
Grandma kept up her yen for Scrabble into her older years, even after the shaking hands of Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to place those little wooden tiles on the slippery board. More than once a tiny jerk of a finger would send every word on the board askew as if a small earthquake had struck, requiring Mom or me to tidy things up. As her body slowed with age, though, her mind stayed sharp. I once played the word FAX and Grandma immediately threatened a challenge. I explained what a fax machine was, which at the time could be found in any workplace but was completely unknown to Grandma. “Is it in the dictionary?” she asked. “Not our old dictionaries, but it’s a word used all the time. It’s actually short for facsimile.” “Then it’s an abbreviation,” she pointed out, “and abbreviations aren’t allowed.” I removed the word from the board.
Midway during one game my outlook changed forever. On my tray were the letters S-E-E-I-G-V-T. On the board was an open S. As long as the spot stayed open until my turn, I could empty my tray and make the word VESTIGES. It would be a seven-letter play for a fifty-point bonus and certain victory in a game I was already winning.
As I waited my turn, I began browsing the old score sheets we kept in the Scrabble box. There were ten or fifteen at least. Before long a startling fact lay in front of me: I had won every single one of those games. I suddenly felt a lump in my throat so big I could hardly swallow. A sense of arrogance swelled deep inside me, mixed with a feeling of selfishness. Grandma and Mom could no longer be playing only for their own enjoyment, I realized, they were playing in large part for mine, knowing I loved the game, knowing I especially loved to win it.
As I peered across the board, my eyes opened for the first time to see that Grandma was no longer the player she once was. Her right hand shook so uncontrollably she would hold it tight with her left, cursing it. She had a difficult time just concentrating on the game. It had been years since she played a seven-letter word and the words she now played rarely returned more than twenty points.
It was my turn. The space remained open, beckoning my seven-letter play. I paused and waited, pretending to search the board for openings. “Can’t you play anything?” Mom asked. I stopped stalling and made up my mind. Using only six of my seven tiles, I played the word VESTIGE and added a handful of points to my score. The final S stayed in my tray. There would be no fifty-point bonus. “The board’s really filling up,” I said. Grandma set her tiles on the edge of the board, not even trying to place them. Mom slid Grandma’s word into position.
Before long we added up the score. Grandma won by eleven points. “Nice game, Grandma. Those were some clever words you played.” Her reply was one I hadn’t heard in years. “It’s all in the tiles you draw. Sometimes you draw good ones and sometimes all you get are the stinkers.”
That was our last game. Grandma died eight weeks later at the age of 87, when ailments she’d been battling for more than four decades finally won their match—or, perhaps, were allowed to win. I had seen her in the hospital the day before she died, passing through town on my way out of the country on business. We exchanged regrets that we hadn’t played a game of Scrabble during that visit and ended our last conversation with a vow to play on my next one. I was hardly over jet lag when my wife called me in Paris with the news. I flew back early to be with family for the funeral. Like most everyone else there, it was an occasion to reflect upon all I had learned from Grandma and how much she influenced the person I had become. And of course I thought about our Scrabble, especially that last game. Did I betray all she taught me by throwing the game? Would she be angry had she known? I don’t know. In fact, can I be certain she never threw a game for me? That first win—was it all my doing? No matter. I’m glad I let her win that last game. In the moments afterward, as we poured the tiles off the board and into their bag, as Grandma placed her letter tray back in the old maroon Scrabble box for the last time, there was a priceless glint of satisfaction in her eye. Or maybe it was in my own. At Grandma’s wake, as I laid my eyes upon her, I slipped a small memento into her casket. A Scrabble tile. The letter U, of course. It’s always good to have one if you draw that Q.