Scrabble - My Dark History

Spot the Clinamen

Over on our site in development (wait for it, wait for it), we had an interesting discussion about Scrabble and this year’s British National Champion, the fantastic Mikki Nicholson.

In principle, I like all games until my children start winning. And until recently I was a big fan of Scrabble. So much so that on my shelves I have a copy of Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis. I have this book partly because The Times claims that ‘Stefan Fatsis is the Hunter S. Thompson of Competitive Scrabble’, but also because the book was published by Yellow Jersey Press in the days (2001) when Yellow Jersey published brilliant sports books no-one else would touch.

The story follows US sports-writer Fatsis as his Scrabble Rating rises from zero to 1697, and you’ll have to believe me that 1697 is both unimaginably good but also not quite good enough. Like being British No 3 at tennis.

I remember not quite sharing Stefan’s passion for Scrabble as far as 1697 – I was perhaps rooting for him whole-heartedly as far as about 1501, but nearly ten years later the best way of remembering what I liked about the book is to cite the sentences I marked with pencil in the margins.

‘But this – the money, the pressure, the tension, the egos, the pride, the prestige. This isn’t just about playing a board game. This is about skill and achievement and self-worth.’

‘The distances and location of the premium squares are just right.  The game is a carefully choreographed pas-de-deux, a delicate balance between risk and reward.’

‘For Matt, as perhaps for James Murray, William Minor, and Joe Leonard, words are the objective reality of life.’

‘In the Book of John, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, Quid est veritas? (“What is truth?”). His answer is an anagram: “Est vir qui adest” (“It is the man who is before you”).  The word anagram itself anagrams to the Latin ars magna, or great art.’

Scrabblers and cross-worders preserve the cabalistic talent for anagrams that the internet otherwise makes banal – Richard Beard as Drab Hard Rice in a millisecond at However, there comes a stage in every Scrabble player’s development when language turns to maths. The game becomes a riddle of patterns, not meanings.

Maybe this happens in every field, for anyone who thinks long and hard enough, about anything.  And everything.  The other lesson Scrabble teaches is less exotic: don’t hold out for better letters.  Make the best of what you have now.

At least I think that’s true.  If not, it may explain why my children beat me – they believe in the luck of the life to come.