Love is just a 7-point word...

...but I'm a Scrabble-holic

scrabble 88 (photo credit: )
scrabble 88
(photo credit: )
Here's how I knew I had a problem: My younger son and I were hunched over the computer, puzzling over my next move. My daughter approached, clutching a humash, and asked if someone could help her with her Hebrew homework. "Not now," we both snapped. "We're playing Scrabble." My name is Andrew S., and I'm a Scrabble-holic. Not Scrabble, exactly, but Scrabulous, an on-line version of the popular crossword game. For years I resisted the lure of on-line games. I had no interest in or aptitude for Texas Hold 'Em. I never understood the appeal of "Second Life" or other virtual worlds, which seemed to ask me to make decisions even less interesting than the ones I make every day. But Scrabulous! Whenever I am in the mood for a game (which is, oh, every 12 minutes), I go to the site, pick a "room," and wait for someone to challenge me. Then we're off. A Scrabble board pops up on the screen, my seven-letter rack below. A clock starts ticking. It's hard to describe the kick of playing a QI (the Chinese vital force) or ZA (short for pizza) on a double-word spot for a minimum of 22 points. Or tagging an R onto an E (ER: an accepted word meaning, er, just what it sounds like) to snag a triple-word space. Use all seven letters in the rack, known as a "bingo," and the computer program actually applauds. AND YOU'D have to play to understand the soul-sapping pain of watching your clock tick down as you hold a rack containing six vowels and a lousy L, while your opponent taunts you with instant messages like "Still there, mate?" (Actually, the Scrabulous world is unfailingly polite. You usually sign in with "good luck" and end with "nice game." Minutes ago I congratulated a player for his/her second bingo, which I only bring up because I STILL WON BY 60 POINTS!) The site also keeps track of my ranking, which earlier this week was hovering around the high 1500s. I think that means I'm a pretty good living-room player, but a patzer compared to the club players, who train by memorizing lists of anagrams and regularly play bingos like MAJAGUA and LOBULAR. YOU CAN read about such people in Stefan Fatsis' terrific book Word Freak, which profiles today's ranking champions. It's there I learned that some of the world's best players are not even English speakers, but Filipinos who memorize letter combinations (and are unencumbered by guilt at playing such accepted words as JUBHAH (a loose outer garment) and EKPWELE (a former monetary unit of Ecuatorial Guinea). Fatsis' book also that taught me everything I know about Scrabble and Judaism, and allowed me to justify a few hours of on-line play as "research": • In 1993, a woman in Virginia complained that the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary included words like KIKE and HEBE, and JEW as a verb. The Anti-Defamation League took up her cause. Scrabble officials said they weren't endorsing the words, and competitive players, including many Jews, said they would hate to lose such perfectly good letter combinations. In the end, there was a compromise: an OSPD for "recreational and school play" omits 167 offensive terms; a club and tournament version does not. • Rabbis have been asked to rule on whether it is permissible to play Scrabble on Shabbat - specifically, whether making words with tiles constitutes the physical act of writing, which is forbidden on the Sabbath. A popular opinion holds that it's okay to play on a deluxe board because the letters are separated by ridges (MECHITZA is an acceptable OSPD word, by the way). As for keeping score, ask a religious kid to teach you the book trick. • ALEPH, TAV and other words for Hebrew letters are also acceptable, as are MEGILLAH and MELAMED. Go know. THE ONLY other Jewish thing I know about Scrabble is that Israel has a lively Scrabble scene among English-speaking immigrants. The late Sam Orbaum, a writer and editor for The Jerusalem Post, not only founded the Jerusalem Scrabble Club (the world's biggest!), but pioneered the idea of squeezing an occasional column out of his Scrabble addiction. I'm in his debt. In fact, this is the point in the column where I am usually expected to spin profundities out of my topic. Unfortunately, Jews and Scrabble do not share as rich a history as, say, Jews and chess. In The Immortal Game, a history of chess, author David Shenk devotes an entire chapter to chess and totalitarianism and describes how the Nazis and Soviets twisted the Jews' chess prowess for their own propaganda purposes. I suppose I could point out how Jews often make superb LOGOMACHS (ones given to arguing about words). And I could write how my treatment of my daughter taught me what really matters in life, and how grateful I was for the opportunity to turn away from my weakness and do teshuva shleima, an act of true repentance. BLAH, BLAH (a nice nine-point word). I think it is my daughter who learned the lesson here. When ABBA (seven points) is holding an X and a K, and there's an open triple-letter space, do not stand between him and the computer. The writer is editor in chief of the NJ Jewish News.