i not only waste time playing Scrabble, now i write about it, too

January 16, 2013

In between the non-profit jobs, the travels, the radio stuff, owning a dog, getting suits made, there’s a lot of waiting around. So naturally, I play Scrabble to pass the time. And over years, I’ve gotten better at it, because I play it competitively, even won some money along the way. At one point, I was the best player – in Burundi. And the only reason I’m not anymore is because I moved to New York.

So a couple friends forwarded me this article yesterday asking what I thought.

A researcher named Joshua Lewis suggested we modify the tile values in Scrabble. The argument goes that we use certain letters differently today than when Alfred Butts created Scrabble about 75 years ago. One cited example is that the Z is used more frequently and so should be worth fewer points, especially now that there is a two-letter word containing the Z (‘za’). Lewis is an American researcher but it’s interesting that British media picked up on this story in greater numbers and with more gusto – almost as if they had more at stake. Well, certainly the British use English differently these days – they sound more like Americans.

Blasphemy? I apologise – no wait, I apologiZe.

But this is a classic case of something being what it is and someone coming along, saying, “Well, ‘what is’ is different than ‘what was’ so we should make changes.” There’s a logical disconnect there. The former doesn’t really imply the latter. Let’s say we don’t change the tiles. The only consequence I can see is that scores will be slightly higher (maybe) compared to older scores. Serious players know you really score in Scrabble by playing all seven letters off a rack at once, which results in a 50-point bonus. I mean, come on, every real Scrabble player knows that. So it’s less important how much each individual tile is worth and more about how they function together to achieve a collective score, and it’s still darn hard to make a seven-letter word with a Q or a Z, no matter how much they’re worth.

The other big point why there is no need to change is because you are playing against an opponent, who is subject to the same scoring and same conditions. Scores in Scrabble are a bit like scores in basketball: you might know how to score points and can amass a lot but matched up against a solid defense and your score will obviously go down. It’s entirely possible that two masters of the game cancel each other out and both score below 400. Even when I score 400, that doesn’t mean I’m a better player than they are.

I know I’m shooting myself in the foot with these arguments. Potentially, I’m shooting many other people at the same time – these are the sorts of arguments that the gun lobby uses to justify owning M-whatever-heat-seeking-deathray-bubble-blasters instead of plain old muskets (hey, they were good enough for the Founding Fathers!). But this is Scrabble – the stakes are higher, the pressure more intense. It’s in every living room, every school. We can’t let the Brits’ funny language influence our quirky antiquated ways. Next would be the metric system, and before you know it, we’re a colony again.

(The simple solution: issue new editions with titles like ‘Original’, ‘2010 Edition’, etc., sort of like Trivia Pursuit.)


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