15 November 2014

Scrabble, Ethics, and The Meritocracy

Another confession: over the last several years I have allowed myself to get sucked into the strange and beautiful world of more-than-casual Scrabble playing, and I like it a little more than is probably good for me. Yes, I have become "that guy" who thinks nothing of playing words like UVEA, COOEE, and AENEOUS whether he's at a Scrabble club (yes, it has gone that far) or with a bunch of drunk friends, and who, when inevitably accused by said drunk friends of "cheating" in the moral sense (if hardly in the legal sense), thinks nothing of pointing out that (1) these words in fact appear on a widely available list of "vowel dumps" that anyone with an internet connection can easily seek out and learn if they care enough to do so, and (2) though these words seem pretty random, Scrabble vocabulary is hardly an anything-goes proposition, specifically because there is an international organization of people who really care about this stuff and whose administration of the rules and their application reflects said high degree of caringness. In contemporary terms now: don't hate the player, hate the game.

Having thus passed from being someone who only thought he was good at Scrabble to being someone who knows he's nowhere near an "expert" (and there is, as with the words themselves, a finite definition of experthood), I have also made the concurrent transition from being someone who viewed studying such lists of meaningless words as "cheating" to being someone who understands that access to such lists or the willingness to make them oneself represents so much less than half the battle. To compete on the highest levels of this game, you still need a steel trap mind, a killer instinct, and an iron poker face; if you lack any of these, experienced players will summarily devour you. You do, admittedly, also need to know a lot of words that you're highly unlikely to encounter anywhere else. Even so, "knowing" them is one thing, "finding" them in crucial moments of a game is another; and that throws the whole proposition back on to familiar territory: practice.

As professor Jerry Luckhardt at the U of MN would always say, "Practice is not a sign of weakness or insecurity." It certainly is not cheating either. Get a bunch of drunk music majors together some weekend and they will unite behind this battlecry concerning their own metier, then decry it in the next breath once someone grabs the Scrabble board off of a nearby bookshelf and deals them a death by a thousand cuts using some of the over 1,000 permissible 2- and 3-letter words. The truth is that the two pursuits are overwhelmingly similar in their Gladwellian dimensions: the intuitive genius and the hapless grinder are, while not unheard of, exceedingly rare birds both in Scrabble and in music. There is also this: given a modicum of discipline and motivation (the afterburn of having one of those vowel dumps played on you for the first time and then losing your challenge seems to provide an adequate, if temporary, dose of both for most drunk music majors), there's no reason virtually any fully developed adult couldn't grasp the most basic elements of high-level Scrabble in one sitting, thereby becoming nearly unbeatable in occasional drunk living room games against less enterprising friends while expending a disproportionately paltry amount of effort. Similarly, I have often found it both maddening and heartbreaking when my adult students seem unable or unwilling to solidify foundational skills and knowledge that would open up the world for them. Too many hobbyists look at professionals with the same mixture of awe and contempt that my music major friends point in my direction when I take the rack AICNNRT and drop down TYRANNIC through a Y for 80-some points. The truth of the matter, though, is that while I've put in only a fraction of the time the experts have, I have made an investment, I have put some thought into prioritizing certain tasks over others in the limited time I am willing to devote specifically to Scrabble, and it has been sufficient to deliver a much more enjoyable and satisfying Scrabble experience. Some find it off-putting simply that you can be capable of plays like the one described above and not yet be near the experts. They should not feel this way: you get out of it what you put into it, and there is plenty of fulfilling, even exhilarating grey area to be inhabited without jeopardizing prior commitments to other life-dominating pursuits.

If you have an iOS device and a Facebook account, let's play Scrabble over the interwebs sometime. I promise I won't go easy on you.

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