Scrabble Is Home
2:37 PM EST on March 3, 2023
I played Scrabble in between attempts to drown myself. Every Spring Break when I was young, my family would visit my grandparents in Palm Beach. Neenie and Grandpa took all of us to their little beach club and I’d go swimming in the ocean all morning and afternoon. I swam no matter what color flag the lifeguard chair was flying. If the flag was yellow for an undertow, I’d go in. If the flag was red, I’d ask the lifeguard if that meant sharks or just life-endangering tidal waves. If it was merely the latter, I’d go in with my boogie board. Then I’d get tossed around like a sock in a planet-sized washing machine before heading back to the pool area. Once there, I’d be greeted by the sight of Neenie and my parents hovering over a Scrabble board.
“Oh, Andrew!” Neenie would say. “Do you wanna play?”
I did. I was a busy little boy who always needed to be entertained. Plus, whenever I played Scrabble with the grownups, they’d let me order a pina-ade (that was what we called a virgin pina colada; judging by my Google search efforts, no one else on Earth has ever referred to that drink that way) and grab fistfuls from their snack bowl, my still-wet hands flavoring the sesame sticks with ocean water.
I started out playing Scrabble like any other kid, rearranging the tiles to make simple words like DOG, or funny words like POO. I’d put down proper nouns like JIM, only to be told those weren’t legal. (“They should be!”) I’d put a legal word down and then Neenie would say, “I bet you can do a better word than that. Let’s see what you have.”
I’d turn my rack around so that all the grownups could see my tiles, and then they’d help me cook up bizarre words I’d never seen before: AI (a three-toed sloth), QAID (alternate spelling for “a Muslim leader”), KA (an ancient Egyptian religious term), and so on. Then I would lay down the better word that we had all workshopped together, and Neenie would tally up the point total with a grandiosity that mirrored her full personality. “That’s 27 points!” she’d tell me, as if I’d played the word entirely on my own. The way she exulted, I felt like I had. I enjoy hogging credit like that. The bigger the score, the bigger the thrill, especially if I got a cheap 50 points by playing EX (to cross out) with the X on a Triple Letter Score.
This is how I learned to play Scrabble: via competitive tutorial. My grandparents never forced me to play 100 percent by the book, and they didn’t beat me 300–20 every game on sheer principle. They taught me as we played. I was allowed to ask if a certain word really was a word, celebrating my good luck when seemingly nonsensical words like KEF (it’s weed!) turned out to be legit. I could ask a grownup to check the dictionary to see if a word was a word. (Checking the dictionary yourself was forbidden at the family Scrabble table, and still is.) I was never allowed to peek into the bag before drawing tiles, although I occasionally did if I thought no one was looking. I got 10 bonus points if I used five tiles and 20 if I used six. I could also swap out blanks that had already been played if I had the corresponding letter on my rack. We called those last two modifications of the game “Palm Beach Rules,” and my parents still play Scrabble that way, even when they’re playing alone. Keeps the board from getting too claustrophobic.
Whenever I won a game outright, Neenie would talk about it for hours. If I laid down a bingo (when you use all seven tiles in your rack to get a 50-point bonus; that’s a real rule, not a Palm Beach Rule), Neenie would bring it up after dinner that night while she nursed her decaf for longer than the average college football game takes. They were legitimately fascinating people, Neenie and Grandpa. Grandpa was the kind of taciturn old lawyer who told three jokes per week but had a batting average of 1.000 on them. Neenie, in fitting contrast, was a downright glamorous woman. Bright red nail polish and lipstick. A bouffant of white hair that towered over her head, never a strand out of place. An undying love for “Tie The Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree.” Once, Neenie took me out onto a dance floor and told me, “Oh Andrew, never settle, dear. Never settle.” She was talking about women (and I didn’t), but also about life in general. Neenie, like my mother, loved to enjoy herself and was never ashamed of it.
With each successive spring break, I needed fewer Scrabble tutorials. Soon I was able beat the adults without their help. This is how you teach kids games sometimes. You let them win until, one day, they don’t need your help to beat you. So now I was beating Neenie and my folks. Not every time, but enough that I wanted to play Scrabble with them more than I wanted to go in the ocean.
If you’ve never played Scrabble, let me give you a brief primer. Invented in 1933 by architect Alfred Butts (go ahead and laugh; it’s a funny name), Scrabble is a crossword game in which players draw seven lettered tiles from a bag of 100. It’s one of the top-five selling board games in human history and is, for my money, the best of them. Each letter has a corresponding point value, with commonly used letters like E worth a single point, and harder to play ones like Q worth 10. Each player takes turns putting a word down on a board that has 225 open spaces. You can only play words off of the words already on the board, and every word you make—both across and down—has to be in the official player’s dictionary, which has been updated and feuded over for many years now.
I used to pore over that dictionary, sometimes flipping to random pages to see what weird words might pop up (JACANA, “a wading bird”), sometimes looking for naughty words (FUCK is no longer in it, but FART very much is), but mostly zeroing in on the two-letter words, which every Scrabble vet has memorized. Two- and three-letter words are the joints of the Scrabble board. Once you know that AE (meaning one) is legit, it helps considerably when you’re looking to play a longer word on your rack. Neenie and Grandpa taught me all of the two-letter words, and they have remained firmly in my brain ever since. I see XU (a unit of Vietnamese currency) among my tiles, and I think of them. Scrabble is my strongest tether to my family, and my family is, oddly, my strongest tether to the game.
Because the only time I ever play Scrabble is with my family. I never played Scrabble at high school, or at college. I’ve never entered tournaments. I don't know what my official player rating is. I’ve never challenged a friend to a game, probably because I’d be too proud to lose. I play on my phone against bots, but it’s not all that charming or instructive to lose to an algorithm. I’ve played Word Freak author Stefan Fatsis a few times, once putting MARTYRED down across two Triple Word Scores to secure my only victory ever against him. But otherwise, the only time I play the game is when blood relatives are nearby. I never meant for it to be this way. Sometimes life creates rituals you never meant to create. As a result, Scrabble is my home in many ways: one of the funky roots I’ve inadvertently created for myself while living as a suburban nomad.
I don’t remember the last time I went to Neenie and Grandpa’s house. Due to money woes, they were forced to sell it decades ago. No more spring breaks in Palm Beach. Grandpa died when I was in college, Neenie a few years thereafter (the last time I went to Palm Beach was for her memorial service). So playing Scrabble with my mom and dad now is, in a very gentle way, a séance. A chance to bring my grandparents back for just a moment. When my parents travel these days, they pack their Scrabble gear the same way Neenie did: a weathered magnetic board that’s been taped up with Saran Wrap, tiny metal racks, a tile bag, pad and paper, all dropped into a canvas tote bag. They pull that board out and suddenly I’m 10 years old again, coming in from the surf and dying of thirst. I see Grandpa sitting at the table in his coat and tie, which he’d wear no matter the weather. I see Neenie clapping with joy as I sing Weird Al tunes for her amusement. I’m back in their Buick Park Avenue, taking scenic detours along Ocean Drive. (“Andrew, Donald Trump just bought that house!”) I’m in Neenie’s kitchen, eating as many Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies as I please and treating my sunburns with fresh aloe vera squeezed from one of her plants. I’m figuring out how to ride a bike for the first time in their driveway, finally catching the rhythm as I pedal over fat strips of grass in pavement seams. I’m swimming in their small, cello-shaped pool. I’m hearing Neenie roar with laughter at the copy of Who Farted? that we gave her for her birthday. And I’m dazzling her with my growing Scrabble vocabulary as she sips on her cocktail.
Mom and Dad are now roughly at the age that Neenie and Grandpa were when I first learned to play this game. When I trek up to their house in Connecticut, a dead spot in the afternoon inevitably comes around, and I say to Dad, “You want a game?” Just like that, we’re back the table, shuffling tiles around, whining that we have no place to put down a bingo, yelling at each other for taking too long, and crying OH BULLSHIT whenever someone plays a seemingly phony word. Anything else going on in the house at that moment fades away as the two of us lock in on the board. We’re evenly matched, although Dad still pulls words out of his ass that leave me surprised and irritated in equal measure. Whenever he plays a bingo against me, he always goes, “Watch this,” signaling to me that I’m about to be fucked. Then he puts the word down and says it out loud, triumphantly. “KABALAS!” Really lays it on thick. Drama queen.
There was a moment this summer, when Dad was still recovering from a rough tangle with COVID, that he was off his game. I beat him handily, but I didn’t enjoy it. I’ve never let Mom or Dad beat me at Scrabble, but now the idea was crossing my mind. I didn’t want Dad to lose. I didn’t want him to struggle. I wanted him to keep playing, to keep aggravating me with his fits of genius. Then I visited the old man again in January and he beat me fair and square. He was back. Never was I so pleased to get my ass kicked. I’m gonna get more matches with him before the end comes. And then it’ll be my turn to pass the game down.
That effort is already underway. My wife doesn’t play Scrabble with me, although she did throw down AIRPLANE one time and, like my dad, cried the word out in triumph after clearing her rack. My older two kids rebuff me whenever I ask them to play (my two older siblings don’t play the game much either). But the youngest of my children … 10 years old, as grandiose a boy as his great-grandmother was a woman … he’s intrigued. I told him that I’d give him prize money if he ever beat me, and that was all the incentive he required. I got the board out, had him draw his tiles, and told him we’d play Palm Beach Rules. We started the game and I watched him screw up his face as he tried to make English out of the nonsense he’d been given.
“I can’t make a word,” he said.
“I bet you can,” I told him. “Let’s see what you have.”