Scrabble Screwballs

by Sam Orbaum (Jerusalem, Israel)

reprinted from The Jerusalem Post, 30 June 2000

If you think a Scrabble club is just letters and words and well-behaved, smart people, you’re thoroughly misinformed. It’s also guns and knives and fisticuffs, and sometimes, people who seem like they got lost on the way to the Hell’s Angels club.

Our very own Jerusalem Scrabble Club was once shut down because it was deemed a public menace. You can take my word for it, it’s nothing we did. It happened during the Gulf war, and the Civil Guard was jittery about large gatherings. And the JSC is the largest SC in the world, which meant we were more likely to have our letter tiles scattered by a Scud.

A Scud alert did interrupt our session, but only for as long as it took us to strap on our gas masks. (Some players had the presence of mind to first neutralize their timers.) We continued playing, chuckling at our absurd defiance. If Saddam could claim any victory over us that night, it’s that he muffled what is also probably the noisiest Scrabble club in the world.

(Strictly speaking, we weren’t the only ones ever to play in gas masks: during a tournament in Pennsylvania, a novice wore a surgical mask because, she explained, she’s allergic to flatulence.)

Aah, but a Scud alert is nothing, says Mike Baron of the Albuquerque club. “Steve Needler had just played SHOTTED against me, when we heard a crack of glass. Then someone yelled: ‘They’re bullets! Get under the table!’ About four or five shots came through the window, then a car sped off.”

That’s how it is at Baron’s, uh, scramble club, as quoth he: “Ya gotta be real tough to play in Club 129, pardner.”

The Director’s Manual doesn’t say anything about abandoning play when fired upon, so naturally, they kept on playing.

Albuquerque and Jerusalem could both lay claim to the most dangerous clubs. In addition to bullets, their venue also had a car crash through the wall; we once had 33 tires slashed in our parking lot. As a Scrabble club does not have many enemies, we had to assume it was an intifada attack.

Actually, we did have an enemy: a bridge club. They were a nasty, snarly bunch, and week after week they ignored my request to finish up and leave, so that I could lock the building. Finally, I taught them a lesson: I gave them my usual 30-minute warning, then duly shut off all the lights and locked them in. They probably didn’t even notice for a few days.

Let’s see … under ‘Scrabble/Crime’ we have the AP story of five IRA members who escaped Whitemoor Prison in Britain while the guards were preoccupied playing A Word Game. More recently, it was reported that the two Libyan suspects on trial for the Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie “spend their days [in prison] playing Scrabble.”

The Fresno club plays in the back room of a pizzeria. During one session, they were utterly oblivious to what was going on in the front room: an armed robbery. Happily, the crooks didn’t think to check out their local Scrabble club. The players would have gladly handed over all their Q’s.

That danged Q.

John Turner of Los Angeles is legendary for his antipathy to unplayable Q’s. He has thrown them at his opponents; reportedly swallowed them; flung one into the Grand Canyon. Stu Goldman recalls playing Turner, and noticed some strange indentations on the back of a tile. He turned it over. The Q. “I knew exactly what those marks were,” Goldman says. “John Turner’s tooth marks.”

You have to wonder why we take this game so seriously. But we do, we do.

Like the time American expert Merrill Kaitz gave Richie Lund the finger, and Lund almost broke it off. There’s been the rare report of a punch thrown, a table overturned, and once, a British player sued the organizers of a tournament, claiming he lost a crucial game because his timer was initiated while he was in the bathroom. (He won the case, but was awarded the equivalent of a grusch. And nobody played with him again.)

Barbara Van Alen of the Phoenix club recalls a player who expressed his frustrations far from the madding crowd. “He’d had a bad night at the club. So he went out to the parking lot, put his Scrabble bag with all his equipment behind a wheel of his van, backed over it and drove off.”

In Israel we have other ways of destroying a Scrabble set. Edythe Friedlander, of Rehovot, got home from the club and forgot her bag on the sidewalk. Naturally, it was assumed to be a bomb. The counter-terrorism squad was called. The police raced to the scene. Traffic was held up for 45 minutes, as the ‘suspicious object’ was cased out. A bomb-disposal robot arrived and the Scrabble set was shot and mortally wounded. Later, the police rounded up the suspect: poor old Edythe. And you know how Israelis are: they asked her, “So how do you play this game?”

Chris Cree kvetched (say that 10 times fast) when an opponent made a huge score and gleefully announced “118!” Cree grumbled loudly: “Yeah, we don’t hear you when you score 22!”

Cree, a Texan, once played at a tournament in Las Vegas, vying for an unprecedented first prize of $50,000. He did poorly, and finished out of the money, but he didn’t really mind: between games, he tried his luck at the casinos — and won a quarter of a million dollars.

I can tell you for certain that laughter isn’t the best medicine: it’s better. In fact, it can be the perfect antidote to medicine.

Roz Grossman of Kfar Sava was suffering from a cold during a tournament, and had to take pills. Large pills. Her son gave her the first of two, which she popped in — but it got stuck in her gullet. For 10 minutes she tried desperately to dislodge it, but she was slowly choking. Everyone panicked. She was gasping for air. She started turning blue. Then her son bent over her, the room fell into a deathly hush — this was it, we believed. And he said: “Ma, does this mean you’re not going to take the second pill?” Whereupon she laughed — and up came the killer pill.

Scrabble has its own mental condition. Goldman recalls that at a Long Island club one night, someone took umbrage at what appeared to be an outrageous play. “What kind of Brooklyn talk is that? Challenge ‘DOSE’!”

Goldman coined a name for the condition, ‘unrecognitis.’ It happens all the time — like when Jerusalemite Esther Gerber challenged my APPLY, contending that nothing but an apple could resemble an apple.

A related ailment is strictly Israeli, called ‘OySPD’ (so dubbed because our dictionary is called the OSPD). It happens when a player innocently — or perhaps intentionally — confuses a Hebrew word for English. Jerusalem’s JJ Jonah once played TANKIST for a big score, and national champion Zev Kesselman didn’t even consider challenging it. Sure! A tankist! Maybe in the IDF, but not the OSPD.

Kesselman himself committed an OySPD when he played VITRINA against Gerber, and Steve Goldberg tricked Lionel Rose with MOSAICA. They all sound legitimate, no?

I once played SUBOTIC, and was instantly challenged. Heh, heh, I thought: bad challenge. It was deemed not good. “WHAT?! I saw it only a few days ago! It means ‘under the ear.’ It’s perfectly good!” But it wasn’t, and it was only months later that I finally realized where I’d seen it: on the back of a Yugoslavian basketball player’s jersey. His name was Subotic.

Ruth Katz — a Sabra — was having a tough time at a local tourney. Her frustration built up as she lost challenge after challenge, and she began to suspect her opponents were taking advantage of the fact she was not born into the language. Finally, she became unglued. Seymour Rosen plunked down yet another ridiculous-looking word, and she exploded: “That’s it! Now you’ve gone too far!” She challenged. She lost. The word was RADII.

You shouldn’t get the idea that clubniks are all whizzes. Nobody at the Indianapolis club was much impressed with one lady attending her first session. Though she said she knew how to play, soon enough she summoned director Regina Wilhite and said, “I didn’t know these little numbers on the tiles had anything to do with it.”

We once had a guy named Norman strut into the Jerusalem club. Big guy; haughty attitude. He wore a cowboy hat and a shirt unbuttoned almost to his pipik, and we decided immediately that we didn’t like him. He said he knew how to play, and wondered if anyone here could too. Well! The director paired him against a skinny 14-year-old kid, which was humbling enough … and the kid beat him 505-82. Norman never returned. He would never know it, but that teenager, JJ Jonah, would one day play in the world championships.

Scrabble, it is hard to admit, is not for everyone. Like Jim Geary’s girlfriend. Geary, of Phoenix, was getting a lot of heat for playing too much. “All you ever think about is Scrabble. You’re so emotionless,” she charged. He brightly congratulated her for hooking an E onto MOTIONLESS. They broke up soon after.

Sometimes love intrudes at the expense of a good game of Scrabble. Like this conversation I overheard at the Jerusalem club:

“Where’s Brenda?”

“She’s getting married tomorrow.”

“So?”

On the other hand, there is this London couple that divorced in 1956, but continued living together. According to the Australian Women’s Weekly, William and Elsie Callender couldn’t give up their routine of playing Scrabble on Saturday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. — the only time they ever spoke to each other.

The Saners of London were expecting a baby any minute, but calculated they could squeeze in a game at the hospital beforehand. Having been unable to agree on a name for the baby — she liked Victoria, he preferred Eleanor — the matter should have been settled when, as Mr. Saner wrote, “The first seven letters I drew out of the bag were ELEANOR.” Thirty minutes later, the baby girl was born. “Incidentally,” said Mr. Saner, “we called her Victoria.”

Police in Orpington, England, responded to an emergency call from a child in need of help. Come fast, they were told. They raced to the Purser home, and found two children playing Scrabble. Five-year-old Shane explained that he had summoned the police because of his sister: “She cheated.”