scrabble[1]“Have you played Scrabble before?”

“Oh yes, I’ve played it at home with my children and grandchildren.”

“Well, it’s a bit different here.”

Thus was I greeted when I entered the portals of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club one fine evening, after having been told about the club, which meets once a week. Little did I know that I was in for a surprise (and not a particularly pleasant one, either).

For most of my working life I have dealt in words, whether as an editor, translator, proofreader, or even publisher. I pride myself on my command of the English language. Pride goeth before a fall, they say, and in my case that was certainly the case.

There was very little to remind me of the happy times spent with the family around the kitchen table as we tested our wits and vocabulary. In an austere, book-lined room (this was a public library, after all) some fifty English-speakers – some of them from out of town – gathered, paid their dues (as did I) and sat down at one of the tables available. I was told to sit wherever I liked, but was immediately shooed away from the seat I chose and told that that place was reserved for the group’s ‘doyenne.’

I realised that things were going to get grim when people started pulling out their own Scrabble boards, bags of letters, and – oh, horror! – clocks like the ones used for timing chess competitions.

At this stage the organisers announced the pairs. Everyone there belonged to one of three categories or levels of expertise, and since I was an unknown quantity I was put in the lowest. In my capacity of novice, I was handed a card containing a list of about 100 two-letter words that are accepted in the Scrabble world and was told that after a few weeks I would no longer be allowed to have it. What was the meaning of ‘words’ such as AA, AO, QI and others no one seemed to know or care. All that mattered was that they appear in the bible of Scrabble players, the Scrabble Players Dictionary, a fat tome containing lists of words – but without definitions – supposedly culled from five reputable dictionaries in the English-speaking world.

In addition, each player was handed a score sheet on which we were expected to note the score for each turn, adding the numbers up as we went along. So, not only does one have to be good at words in order to play competitive Scrabble, you also have to be good at mental arithmetic.

And so the fun began. I was told that each player has 25 cumulative minutes to complete each of the three games he or she plays per evening, with three different partners. My first partner (the pairs were decided by computer program) was a very fast player, and kept reminding me that I had to start my clock ticking when I put my letters down on the board. Of course, even I know that it’s a good idea to get on to a double-word or triple-letter square if you can, but I found myself constantly getting left behind.

During the game my first partner gallantly refrained from challenging my use of the word ‘nous’ but looked it up in his ‘bible’ afterwards and was surprised to see that it exists. The other word I used (which I can’t remember now) was not, but he didn’t make a fuss about it. What I hadn’t realized, however, was that at the end of the game the winner adds to his/her score the sum of their opponent’s letters. Of course, I still had my X and Z and other high-value letters when the game ended, so that my final score was far, far behind that of my opponent.

Then, without further ado (or even a cup of coffee) on to the next partner, again selected by computer. This person was somewhat less charitable. When I queried a word (‘getters,’ I believe it was) she said: “Are you challenging me?” I’ve heard of ‘go-getters,’ but not of ‘getters,’ so I said that I was. She promptly opened her ‘bible’ and pointed to the word. “That means you forfeit your turn,” she triumphed, and continued to play without further ado.

After that I chickened out and refrained from challenging ‘bace,’ but got quite upset when I was told that IQ is not acceptable, even though QI is (I looked it up at home in my Concise Oxford Dictionary, where of course it is not to be found). And so my opponent proceeded to trounce me thoroughly, albeit with a sweet smile.

My final partner was somewhat less intense, and told me that we could dispense with the clock. Even so, I came off somewhat the worse for wear.

And so, my feathers seriously ruffled, my ego definitely deflated, I dragged myself home. The other players waved me a cheery goodbye and said they hoped I’d come back again next week.

Maybe. But only after I learn to read, write and speak Scrabblish.