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The cops arrive, as they always do, their Aegean blue NYPD cruiser bumping onto the sidewalk and into the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. There are no sirens or flashing lights, but the late- model Buick does emit a staccato bwip-bwip to signal to the public that business is at hand. The drug dealers usually shuffle away, perpetuating the cat-and-mouse game that occurs hourly in this six- acre plot of concrete, grass, dirt, and action in Greenwich Village. The druggies whisper, "Sense, smoke, sense, smoke," as they have for twenty or thirty years, seemingly in tacit agreement with the cops to ply their trade as long as they do it quietly. But now, instead of allowing the dealers to scatter as they normally do, officers in short-sleeved summer uniforms, chests bulging from flak jackets, actually step out of the cruiser, grab a man, and slap on cuffs. "What's going on?" someone asks. "They're arresting a drug dealer." I don't look up. It is a hot, humid, windless Sunday afternoon in August 1997 in New York City, an asphalt-and-concrete circle of hell. The blacktop is thick with urban detritus broken glass, bits of yellowed newspaper pages, stained paper coffee cups, dozens upon dozens of cigarette butts. In the southwest corner of the park, hustlers occupying the dozen or so stone tables attempt to lure the unsuspecting. "You need to play chess," one of them announces. Tens and twenties are exchanged and surreptitiously pocketed with a glance over the shoulder. Not that the hustlers need worry; on the scale of petty crimes, board-game gambling ranks even below selling $10 bags of marijuana to New York University students. Around the fountain in the center of the park, hundreds gather to watch the street performer of the moment the juggler, the magician, the guy with the trained monkey that jumps on the arm of a rube. On the south side, the dog people take refuge in their fenced-in, gravel-covered enclosure, where humans and animals eye one another cautiously before succumbing to the bond of their shared interests, dogs and other dogs, respectively. There is hair of all colors and styles, piercings and tattoos that would make Dennis Rodman blush, bikers and skaters and readers and sleepers and sunbathers, homeless and Hare Krishna, the constant murmur of crowd noise floating in the thick air. None of it matters.
I've already squandered points with consecutive low-scoring plays intended to ditch a few tiles in hopes of picking up better companions for the Q that fortunately, I think, has appeared on my rack. And I got them: a U, two E's, an R, and an S. But the chess clock to my right taunts me like a grade school bully as it winds down from twenty-five minutes toward zero. I have these great letters, but no place to score a lot of points with them. It's only the second time that I've played in Washington Square Park and, frankly, I'm intimidated. My opponent is Diane Firstman, a fact I know only because she has handwritten and taped her name to the back of each of the standard-issue wooden racks that hold the game's tiles. She is a tall, physically awkward woman with short hair, glasses, and a mouth of crooked teeth: Janet Reno with an anagram jones. She carries a clipboard with her personal scorecard "Diane's Score," it is titled which contains boxed areas to record her point totals and those of her opponent, each of the words they create, and all one hundred tiles. She marks off the letters as they are laid out in word combinations so she can keep track of what's left in the plaid sack sitting next to the board. Diane is an up-and-coming player at the Manhattan Scrabble Club, which meets Thursday nights at an old residence hotel in midtown. On her right wrist she wears a watch featuring the trademarked Scrabble logo. On her head is a crumpled San Diego Padres baseball cap, circa 1985. Without knowing, I figure that excelling at Scrabble is a way for this ungainly thirty-something woman to shed whatever insecurities she might have. During a game, shed them she does. I have watched her play another novice, Chris, who chats during play. Among the Scrabble elite this habit might be a highly scorned mind-game tactic known as "coffeehousing," but in this case it's just friendly banter. Worse, Chris thinks out loud, and when her brain momentarily short-circuits and she questions Diane's play of the word LEAFS, the retort comes quickly: "Duh! As in leafs through a book!" When Diane makes a particularly satisfying or high-scoring play, she struggles to stifle a smile, rocks her head from side to side, proudly (and loudly) announces her score, and smacks the chess clock with too much élan. I have made sure that Diane and the others who gather daily at the three picnic tables in this corner of the park know that I'm a newbie. When asked, I say that I'm just learning to play the game. Which in the strictest sense isn't true. Everyone knows how to play Scrabble. Along with Monopoly, Candy Land, and a few other chestnuts, Scrabble is among the best-selling and most enduring games in the two- hundred-year history of the American toy industry. Hasbro Inc., which owns the rights to Scrabble in North America, sells well over a million sets a year. Around a hundred million sets have been sold worldwide since the game was first mass-produced in 1948. In some households, Scrabble is extricated from closets around the holidays as a way for families to kill time; in others, it's a kitchen-table mainstay. Regardless, say the word "Scrabble" and everyone knows what you're talking about: the game in which you make words. But it's much more than that. Before I discovered Washington Square Park, I was aware of the game's wider cultural significance. Scrabble is one of those one-size-fits-all totems that pops up in movies, books, and the news. I once wrote an article that mentioned the Scrabble tournament that Michael Milken had organized in the white-collar prison where he did time for securities fraud. There's the scene in the movie Foul Play in which one little old lady plays the word MOTHER and another extends it with FUCKERS. Mad magazine has regularly made fun of the game. (A 1973 feature on "magazines for neglected sports" included Scrabble Happenings: "My Wife Made XEROXED on a Triple . . . So I Shot Her!") Scrabble has appeared in The Simpsons and Seinfeld, the Robert Altman films 3 Women and Cookie's Fortune, the Cary Grant snoozer The Grass Is Greener, and the seventies comedy Freebie and the Bean. In Rosemary's Baby, Mia Farrow uses Scrabble tiles to figure out that the name of her friendly neighbor Roman Castevet anagrams to that of a witch named Steven Marcato. Rosie O'Donnell regularly talks about her Scrabble addiction. Higher brows love it, too. In a bit about mythical Florida tourist traps, Garrison Keillor lists the International Scrabble Hall of Fame. Charles Bukowski's poem "pulled down shade" ends with the lines: "this fucking/Scotch is/great./let's play/Scrabble." Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel Ada, describes an old Russian game said to be a forerunner of Scrabble. The game is a cultural Zelig: a mockable emblem of Eisenhower-era family values, a stand-in for geekiness, a pastime so decidedly unhip that it's hip. In places like the park, I'm learning, it also embodies the narcotic allure of strategic games and the beauty of the English language. I have been dabbling in Scrabble since I was a teenager. There is a summer-vacation photo of my two older brothers playing with two older cousins; barred from their game, I somewhat pathetically but what choice do I have, really? am relegated to keeping score. Like many childhood snubs, this one haunts me into adulthood. In the last years of high school, I play late-night games with a friend on the next block, a couple of decent suburban kids listening to seventies rock and killing time before the next sports event or night of bar- and diner-hopping. Around the same time, my brother Lampros gets hooked on the game. He is eight years my senior and mathematically inclined; he scored a perfect 800 on his SAT and taught me square roots when I was in the second grade. It's the middle of the lost decade of his twenties, and Lamp is on a long-term plan to graduate from M.I.T. He's got plenty of time on his hands, so when he and his journalism- student roommate pick up the game, he becomes obsessed. He masters the two- and three-letter words. He stays up all night reading the newly published Scrabble dictionary. The two play marathon sessions, and keep a running dime-a-point tally of their scores, which they apply against utility bills. I think them weird. And cool. But I'm never much intrigued until a girlfriend and I christen our blooming love with a travel set. We tote it to the Canadian Rockies and the Grand Tetons, to Greece and Turkey, to a ranch in Colorado and an adobe in Santa Fe, to Vermont ski chalets and Hamptons beach motels, where we play constantly, recording the date and place of each encounter. She presents me with a copy of the OSPD The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (first edition) with the following inscription: "For consultation only. NO memorizing!" And though I abide her request regarding the dictionary, I win too often. "Why do you even want to play with me?" she asks after one especially lopsided contest, and my heart sinks as I realize that this refuge in what has become an otherwise imperfect life together is forever gone. When the time comes to divide our belongings, book and board are mine. Panicking, I lay down the obvious QUEERS, aware somehow that I am doomed.
A good living room player. That's what John D. Williams, Jr., had dubbed me, and if it sounds like a backhanded compliment, that's because it is. From a storefront office on the eastern shore of Long Island, Williams runs the National Scrabble Association, the governing body of the game. Many top players, I learn, resent his authority, but he's also partly responsible for the wild growth of tournament play in recent years. The NSA, which is independent of but funded predominantly by Hasbro, publishes a Scrabble newsletter received by about 10,000 people, keeps track of the ratings of some 2,300 active tournament players, sanctions 200 clubs, and oversees 150 tournaments a year, twice as many as a decade earlier. The national championship the previous summer had attracted 400 players. In a few months, Williams tells me, Hasbro and the NSA will host the world championships, with players from thirty countries, some of whom barely speak English. I had proposed a game against Williams as a starting point for the quest I had hatched with friends on New Year's Day: to become a competitive Scrabble player. Why? I couldn't say exactly. I had read a recent Sports Illustrated story about the eccentric, apparently cutthroat world of competitive Scrabble and thought, I've played this game, I can do that. My newlywed friends Jonathan and Lynn Hock had been squaring off daily and would call to brag about seven-letter words and high-scoring contests. I joined them for occasional three-handed games, hoping that engaging in a cherished pastime from my old relationship would help me mourn its demise. In the aftermath of the breakup, I conveniently blew out a knee playing soccer and spent most of my nights in obsessive postsurgical rehab. But physical therapy was winding down. I needed something to do. I needed, horrors, a hobby. En route to Jon and Lynn's Upper West Side apartment to ring in the new year with a few games, I stopped in a Barnes & Noble and bought every Scrabble-related book on the shelf, including (a mistake, I later learned) the third edition of the OSPD. To record the first step of my journey, we photographed the board. Weeks later, I called John Williams to propose a friendly game. My goal: to lose, and lose badly. After all, this was supposed to be a journey. Odysseus wandered around for ten years. Columbus's crew nearly mutinied before he happened upon land. The Donner party starved in the mountains. "You just might win," Williams says as we sit down to play in his midtown hotel room. "Yeah, right," I reply, clinging to my script. Williams plays CARED to open the game, scoring 22 points. I draw a bingo a play using all seven of one's tiles, worth an extra 50 points on my first turn: LEAPING, which I place below the last two letters of CARED, forming EL and DE. "There you go," Williams says, before pointing out that PEALING would have been worth more. But I am unaware that PE, which I could have made by placing the P above the E in CARED, is an acceptable word (it's a Hebrew letter). After a few low-scoring turns for each of us, I lay down SQUIRE, and suddenly I'm ahead, 139-44. A few plays later, I throw down another bingo, RESIDUE, for 77, and my lead grows to 233-116. "I will say you're getting great tiles," Williams remarks. It's true, I already have pulled both blank tiles, three of the four precious S's, the lone Q accompanied by a U, and a bunch of E's and R's. Still, I think, he could be a little more generous. But then Williams says, "Not only are you getting great tiles, you know what to do with them," and I feel a touch guilty for my ungracious thought. I play LOGE for 13. He plays DICE for 27. I play ZEST for 41. Score: 287-140. "I'm surprised you didn't have a Y for ZESTY and a double- word score," Williams cracks, gibing me for my good fortune. He passes his turn, trading in an I, O, R, and two U's. Okay, so maybe I am getting good tiles. I play WIDTH on a triple-word score for 36. I play TAX on a triple-word score for 30. I finally do get that Y, and play YAM for 21: 391-202. FIT for 30, NO for 17. When it's over, I have beaten the executive director of the National Scrabble Association, 457-277. "Holy shit," I remark, trying not to gloat. "You're not kidding," Williams replies. "This may be the worst I've ever lost. I couldn't manage my rack. It wasn't happening." "By the way, that was my highest score ever." "Glad I could help." I ask Williams to assess my current ability, and my potential. "You're probably like an eleven hundred player," he says. Player ratings in Scrabble are based on the Elo system for rating chess tournaments and range from 500 at the bottom to over 2000 at the top. "You could be a twelve hundred player. It's hard to tell after one game. Your strategy is sound. Clearly, you're a good living room player." Humph. Surely, I think, I'm better than that. A few weeks later, we stage a rematch. I lose, 502-291.
By the time of my first game against Diane, I have been watching the parkies for three weeks. During my first visit, I sit on a concrete wall behind the forest green picnic tables where the parkies play and I observe. During my second visit, I wait for an invitation to a game, and when I get one, I lose, but just barely, to a regular named Herb. My third summer weekend in Washington Square, the parkies begin to recognize me, asking my name again and how much I play. "Just learning the game," I demur, tossing off the deliberately self- effacing line that is becoming my mantra. I ask how often there is a game. "Weekends," says Herb. "For those who have day jobs, that is. Those who don't . . ." His voice trails off. "They're here every day." Always, the same faces are huddled over the banged-up rotating boards, and everyone smokes. There's a well-built African- American guy with doe eyes and salt-and-pepper hair named Alan Williams, a general contractor who takes long drags and ponders his moves for long stretches. A regular opponent of his is Aldo Cardia, who is always dressed in black slacks and a white shirt because he runs a local diner. Aldo rides over on a three-speed bicycle, Scrabble board, clock, and dictionary stowed in a front basket. An excellent bridge player, Aldo spent a full winter studying words before getting behind a board in the park and now is a top player here. I meet Joe Simpson, a curmudgeonly African-American World War II veteran usually dressed in a beret and army fatigues. There's a loudmouthed woman with blue nail polish who can't stop kibitzing other people's games. There's Steve Pfeiffer, whose name I learn because it is spelled out in Scrabble tiles glued to the back of a double-long rack. Pfeiffer is a New York Scrabble legend who played in the first sanctioned tournaments back in the mid-1970s. He's topless, not a good look for him, with a blue windbreaker covering his legs. Pfeiffer is playing another expert-level player, Matthew Laufer, who also has doffed his shirt in the heat, exposing an ample gut and torn underwear protruding from the rear of his pants. Matthew seems to have a predilection toward random proclamations about Scrabble, language, or virtually any other subject. Matthew tells me he is a poet. "You know, you're better off with one E than two E's," he says. "And you're better off with one S than two S's." I make a list of some of the words laid out on the boards: LEZ, GOBO, VOGIE, TAOS, FOVEAL, GUID, MOKE, JEREED, LEVANTER, ZAYIN, GLAIVES, SHELTIE, DOVENED, CAVIE. They all are alien to me. And as for my beloved Q, I learn that it is a Trojan horse. Sure, it and the Z are the only tiles worth 10 points, but clinging to the Q for too long in hopes of a big score, as I did against Diane, prevents you from drawing letters that offer a fresh chance for a bingo. A lingering Q is like an unwanted houseguest, gnawing on your nerves, consuming your attentions, refusing to take the hint and get lost. I've let the visitor raid the refrigerator, plop his feet on the coffee table, and channel-surf. Even the least accomplished competitive players memorize all of the acceptable Q words that don't require a U (there are ten, plus their plurals), with QAT the most frequently played. But, novice that I am, I pass up QAT as too skimpy for my precious high-scoring letter, hoping instead that randomly plucking tiles from the bag will lead to the kind of play that would move Diane to whack the clock and announce her score with smug self-satisfaction. QUEERS isn't it. It is worth too few points to have justified inaction for so long. (In competitive Scrabble, each player has twenty-five minutes to complete a game; "go over" on time and you are penalized 10 points per minute.) It is the result of ineptitude, and of desperation. Desperate Scrabble players normally lose. And I do. The Q play unnerves me. Diane turns a tight game in which we trade bingos on our second turns (she KINDLING, me RESOUNDS) into a rout. For good measure, she ends the game with another bingo, REDIRECTS. "Eighty-six," she chirps. Whack. Final score: 429-291. Oh, well, I think, I'm just learning the game. On my subway rides back and forth to the park, I study a list of the ninety-seven two-letter words and nearly one thousand three- letter words which John Williams had given me. I see a license plate and wonder whether KEW is a word. (It isn't.) I see the Yankees pitcher Graeme Lloyd's name on the TV screen and anagram it: MEAGER DOLLY. I learn the U-less Q words. I lose to Diane three more times in the park. I make notes: "1. Need to learn my threes. Some doubts on twos during game. 2. Clock over on all three games. 3. Feel pressure when game close. 4. Diane not so obnoxious." And after a few weeks in the park, I realize I have made a small impression. Matthew, the poet, says while I play Diane, "This guy could be dangerous." I'm not sure if it's praise or sarcasm, whether I'm viewed as fresh meat or a potential player. But I'll take it. Diane and the others invite me to the Thursday-night games at the midtown hotel. The beginners, someone notes, gather at 5:30.