WORD WARRIORS

In Arts & Life /

By Jessica Lockhart

I knew the situation was getting scary when I woke up in a cold sweat one night last week. I had been dreaming that I was playing Scrabulous, but with the placement of each tile, I had to weigh the ethical consequences. Would Kant approve of my placing the Q next to the I, even if it wasn’t on a double-letter score? Would deontologists agree with my decision to swap tiles, for the greater good, rather than use my turn to earn a measly five points? I had spent the night playing Scrabulous when I should have been writing a media ethics paper. Surely, Kant would understand.

Just when I felt as though my school work was under control, a new way to procrastinate for hours on end was created. In a matter of days, it seemed like all my Facebook friends were signing up. I needed to know who the evil mastermind behind my new favourite time-wasting tool was. So, I placed a call to India to find out.

Jayant Agarwalla, a 21-year college student, co-founded Scrabulous.com with his brother Rajat in June 2006. Since it launched as a Facebook application in July 2007, more than 1.3 million Facebook users have signed up, making it the most popular game on the website. But while Facebook users are casually refreshing their Scrabulous homepages in the hope that it’s their turn, competitive Scrabble players are gearing up for a tournament where the stakes are much higher than the grade on an ethics paper.

My own Scrabble obsession didn’t begin in the digital sphere, though. I’ve been playing the game for as long as I’ve had the capability to sound out words phonetically. It began as a Christmas Eve tradition, with my mom pulling out the board and forcing us to play. Back then, Scrabble was a learning game. But my mother was relentless. When her final score trumped ours by at least 100 points, she didn’t refrain from gloating.

The competitive nature of our yearly games left me with one goal — to beat my mom. By the time I was 20, I’d forego nights of drunken debauchery in favour of Scrabble dates. My friends started joking that I should drop out of university and pursue a career as a professional Scrabble player.

It wasn’t a bad idea. But I knew that if I was going to consider playing a board game as my main source of income, it was time to get some tips from the pros. When I arrived at the Earl Bales Community Centre in North York two years ago, Scrabble champ Evan Berofsky was already setting up for the Toronto Scrabble Club’s weekly game night. Berofsky is one of the top three Scrabble players in Ontario, and has gone much further than North York to compete — in 2003 he attended the World Scrabble Championships in Malaysia.

But right then and there, he quashed my dreams of the big leagues. “Some people like to claim that they are professional Scrabble players,” he told me. “But there’s really almost no way you can make an actual living off of it.” As a non-televised event, there are few opportunities for sponsorship, and prizes for the tops spots are less than $25,000. It wasn’t time yet to quit the student life.

Still, I wanted to hone my Scrabble skills. That Monday night, I met Roger Cullman, a Ryerson graduate, at a casual Scrabble club held at a bar on Bloor Street. Since I was a newbie, he handed me a cheat sheet of two and three-letter words and teamed up with me against a regular named Matthew. I was feeling a little nervous, but confident about playing my first game. I figured that if all else-failed, my silk-screened owl shirt would intimidate my opponents into thinking that I was wise, and by proxy, good at Scrabble. However, halfway through my first game, Matthew leaned across the table and asked, “Are you wearing an owl shirt so people will think you’re wise?”

It was at Scrabble in the City that the two and three letter words began to take meaning. QAT: an evergreen shrub. JO: a sweetheart. And my personal favourite; TUP: to copulate with a ewe. (It amazes me that there is a word in the English language reserved for this specific purpose. It’s also a word I relish in using as frequently as possible. However, since I don’t know any sheep farmers or anyone who’s into bestiality, it’s not a word I can really use, except when I’m playing Scrabble.)

It was also here that I realized what Berofsky meant when he told me, “There’s so many possibilities and permutations with this game, so math is a vital component.” Allegedly, the best Scrabble players aren’t writers — they’re mathematicians. A lengthy, archaic word doesn’t get you anywhere when it’s played against a well-placed small one. The best Scrabble players are those who can manipulate letters in their heads, utilizing board squares for maximum scoring. At Scrabble in the City, I’d found a roomful of people with a shared passion. But my friends still raised their eyebrows whenever I mentioned my love of the game. I began to think that Berofsky was right when he said, “I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s a cultural phenomenon, or something that will sweep people off their feet.”

But then, two years later, came Scrabulous. And I wasn’t the only one who became hooked on the game.

There are major differences between kitchen table Scrabble and the big leagues, though. While Scrabulous allows you unlimited time to make your moves, professional Scrabble players are only allotted 25 minutes. Instead of players challenging one another’s words, Scrabulous lets you know when you’ve made an invalid play. But most notably, the lack of face-to-face interaction makes cheating easy. Players can reference online dictionaries and use word-building tools without their opponents being one the wiser.

But Agarwalla says competing isn’t his primary interest in the game. “What’s unique about Scrabulous is that if we are both playing a game, and I’m making a move, then for that 10 to 15 seconds, I’m thinking about you,” he said. “And that’s what the essence of social networking is about.”

But most professional players aren’t out there to share their love and affection for one another. This past weekend was the World Scrabble Championships in Mumbia, India, where the top Scrabble players competed for a grand prize of $15,000. Team Canada sent seven players to defend our title (the 2005 winner, Adam Logan, is a mathematics professor from Waterloo) including my acquaintance Evan Berofsky.

As for me, I know I’ll never be a world champion. But in the meantime, I’m brushing up on my game. Christmas is fast-approaching, and I know my mom and potential triple-word scores are waiting for me. I’m the Lockhart family two-time champion, and I have my own title to defend.

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