LONDON, ONTARIO – Chess is probably the only board game of sufficient pedigree and complexity to lend a kind of cachet to anyone who plays it well. “Oh, he’s a bright one,” people think for a few minutes when they perceive one’s mastery at a game whose appeal is so abstract that few are genuinely drawn to it. But then those same people pick up on the social obtuseness which chess masters so frequently exhibit and the lustre of that wizardry is lost on all but other similarly afflicted geeks.
I’m pretty sure I remember how all of the pieces move but I neither loved chess nor excelled at it and it’s been decades since I sat down to a match. I grew up with a neighbourhood chum who actually was a bit of prodigy and picked up some trophies in public competitions. Most of the games I played were at his behest – few lasting more than four or five moves (Can you guess who won?) – but shortly after high school he went right off the rails with the most disruptive and perpetual case of alcoholism I’ve ever known, altering his character in alarming ways and making it impossible to sustain a friendship.
I’m much more adept at Monopoly, a game I always seem to play in the summer; more recently at the cottage with the grandkids (where I gleefully clean their little clocks) and in the old days with my friends in the final weeks of summer holidays when that dwindling store of free time started to hang heavy on our hands and we’d fritter it away in marathon matches. First invented in the depths of the Depression, Monopoly has proven to be a uniquely enduring board game, its popularity outlasting all kinds of newer games that catch on like crazy for three or four years (Trivial Pursuit anyone?) and then fade away without a trace.
Monopoly is purportedly about property management and the wheeling and dealing of deeds (Do you suppose Donald Trump ever had a thing for it?) but if that was actually so, wouldn’t a frequent winner such as myself be more adept at making moolah? No, I am persuaded that Monopoly is just a game of chance, like so many others, which I happen to inexplicably win more often than I ought to. Whatever that knack is that carries me to frequent victory on the game board is stubbornly untranslatable to the real world.
This hard truth was driven home to me in a most embarrassing way after winning one of those late summer bouts with my friends. We packed all the money, markers, deeds and the dice back into the box and headed out to the variety store for the kind of junky sustenance that appeals to thirteen year-old boys. I confidently loaded up a bag of chips, a pop and a chocolate bar on the counter and did not realize until Mr. Dreyer started to ring them in that I lacked sufficient coinage in my pocket to pay for any of it. But . . . but . . . short minutes ago, I owned all four railroads, hotels on the green and yellow properties and both of the utilities . . . “Would you take a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, Mr. Dreyer?”
But the board game I’ve played far more than any other throughout my life is Scrabble; that venerable American form of home entertainment that comes with lettered wooden tiles that you lay out in crossword-puzzle fashion to form words (if possible using all seven letters on TRIPLE WORD SCORE squares) and thereby score massive totals and crush your opponent. My routine for the last few decades has been to get together six or seven times a year for a game with a word-addled friend whose skills pretty evenly match my own. We were thrown off our usual schedule earlier this year by the Chinese Batflu Pandemic but resumed it with back garden matches through the summer (indeed, we picked up on those lost games by meeting weekly for a stretch) and are devising a somewhat distanced variation on our usual set-up for an indoor match later this month.
We customarily rack up 200 plus points each – in a good game we break 300 – trading off victories every other match so that nobody has cause to become lastingly smug or despondent. As a fully accredited librarian he may have a slight edge in knowing arcane scientific terms and certain three and four letter words denoting obscure foreign currencies. But always playing at my house, I have a few advantages of my own that I'm not shy about pressing. Whenever he assumes a worrisome lead, I subtly remove any meditative or classical music from my CD player and replace it with something a little more distracting. It's just magical how his concentration evaporates when I play Van der Graaf Generator's A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers or something from Richard Thompson's Henry the Human Fly.
It may have been some sort of revenge ploy for just that kind of tyranny that made him mention that his brother-in-law headed up Chapter #546 of the National Scrabble Association which was running a day-long Tournament in Stratford one fateful October Saturday twenty years ago. "You really ought to go down there and try a few rounds with those guys," he helpfully suggested. "Just sort of see how you stack up. Don't you think that would be interesting?"
“Why not?” I decided. And after about four hours sleep, I was up with the newspaper delivery boys on Saturday morning, hitching a ride to the meet with three London ladies - grizzled tournament veterans all - two of whom had a preparatory match underway in the back seat, sharpening their skills in transit with a smaller traveler's edition of the game, complete with snap-on plastic letter tiles and a swiveling base for turning the board the other way around. Arguably the most fanatical of these ladies was our driver who excitedly informed me that in just another couple of months, she would be celebrating Christmas at sea as part of a ten-day Scrabble ocean cruise. Who knew such subcultures even existed?
The sun was just coming up as about forty players from the region went clattering down the basement stairs of St. Paul's Anglican Church in downtown Stratford for registration. Hanging up our coats in a long hallway, I started to sense the trouncing I was in for as I noticed how many of my soon-to-be competitors were sporting customized name tags made out of recycled Scrabble tiles. This wasn't the cloakroom of some innocuous little clubhouse. This was a military barracks and these folks meant business. Lining up at a table to sign away our day, each player was assigned to one of four divisions, which reflected our level of Scrabble-playing moxy: Expert, Competitive, Intermediate, or Recreational. As a novice, I was placed in the lowest achieving of these groups, though I could've risen a category or two if my performance in the seven slated games (five Round Robins and two King of the Hills) was particularly spectacular.
Sadly, that didn't prove to be necessary. Not that my performance was without distinction. I was the only person in the Recreational Division who lost all seven of his games. It was small consolation that one of the Expert players also lost all seven of her rounds because nobody in any category came remotely close to my singular achievement in the more ultimately damning matter of what they call "cumulative negative point spread"; which is the total number of points by which I trailed my opponents in all seven games. That particular figure was (ahem) –720.
Did this mean that I was a dunce? It most certainly did not. It only meant I'd always been playing a different sort of Scrabble all these years. On the rule sheet that comes with every Scrabble set it states quite clearly that (among other words) abbreviations and prefixes are not allowed. Taking their cues from a definition-free dictionary called the National Scrabble Association's Official Tournament and Club Word List, my opponents on that infamous day scored points by setting down words like "abs," "wiz," "bi," "opes," "lar," etc. (And just where, one wonders, does the National Scrabble Association get off in printing up a guide which flatly contravenes the universally understood rules of the game?)
Ask any of those keeners to explain what a "lar" or an "opes" was and they did not know. They only knew that it was in the Tournament Word List, which many players were on their way to memorizing in all of its brain-rotting, 473-page entirety. Well, phooey on that. And as for my next home game with a certain librarian friend who never summoned the courage to test his mettle in that gladiatorial arena he so conivingly tossed me into, a crucially timed selection or two from Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy went a good long way to restoring my pride and putting me back on winning form.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :