By Jeff Berg
You can see it in her eyes. She is a semi-pro. The intensity—the darting of her retinas from rack to board. The slight furrow on her brow. Her opponent, a novice, does not notice this body language. She is looking intently around the playing field made up of tiny squares of hard plastic on a swivel base. There is a slight panic visible in her eyes. Perhaps that is a small bead of sweat on her upper lip.
A slender smile curls the corners of the semi-pro's mouth; her eyes narrow as she reaches for her weapons of choice—two small tiles, with a letter and a small number on each. She puts the numbers on the board and, with just the smallest amount of pride in her voice, announces, "Qat—44 points."
With widened eyes, the novice says, "'Qat?' What does that mean?"
The Scrabble dictionary lies nearby, and Nancy Bennewig—the semi-pro—reaches for it to show opponent Kris Witte what "qat" does mean. It is some type of a small shrub. Slightly disheartened but not defeated in the least, Witte takes her turn and places her letters on the board, "Eight points," she says shyly.
These folks, who know about qat and a lot of other words, are competing in the monthly (except December) Scrabble tournament held in the Hardback Cafe, located in the Hastings Books, Music and Video store, 2350 E. Lohman Ave. in Las Cruces. Several of the players, including Witte, Sylvia Rodriguez and Mark Pendleton, are board members for the Literacy Volunteers of Dona Ana County (LVDAC), which sponsors the tournament. Kris Witte is the official host for this week, a job that is rotated among LVDAC board members. Hastings is also a corporate sponsor of the LVDAC Scrabble challenges. Moreover, the folks who make Scrabble, Hasbro, donated the games and the official Scrabble dictionaries that are being used. "More game boards are coming soon,' notes Witte.
The LVDAC, which has been active in Las Cruces since 1985, has an office in the Dona Ana Branch Community College; its main goal is to help adults enhance their literary skills. There is no charge for their services. The challenges have been going on for about three years.
The other game in progress pits Pendleton v. Rodriguez, with Pendleton ahead. He plays like I do, slowly and deliberately, weighing each option.
"There are different styles in playing this game," Bennewig points out. "There are constipated games, where one player clogs everything up." She laughs. "I think it is symbolic as to how people lead their lives!"
Pendleton ignores her, but I exhale in hearty disagreement.
After a few minutes, Pendleton puts "W-O-W" on the board, and tallies his score. Sylvia Rodriguez, not afraid to show her impatience with the long wait, quickly lays her tiles down, and announces her count.
The game of Scrabble has been around for about 75 years, invented during the Depression by Alfred M. Butts. Butts was most meticulous about the rules of his game, to the point of counting the number of times certain words and letters were used on the front page of The New York Times. The game went through a few identity changes, and was at various times called Criss-Cross Words and Lexico. It was not until the early 1950s when Butts and his new business partner, James Brunot, became successful—after several years in which Brunot and his wife had made the games by hand in their home.
Macy's Department Store in New York City picked up the game, and it became a phenomenon. The final name change to Scrabble (which, by the way, means "to grope frantically," something my wife frequently asks me to stop doing) stuck, and the game remains one of the most popular board games in the world. There are 175 groups in the National Scrabble Association, although none locally. Nationwide tournaments take place; a tome called Word Freak, about Scrabble tournament attendees, was published several years ago. The Guinness Book of World Records has noted the highest recognized score, by an Englishman, Phil Appleby, who beat his opponent 1,049 to 253 in 1989.
"Four hundred-plus," is the response I get from Bennewig, a property manager by day, when I ask her if she can remember her highest score. She has just finished skunking Kris Witte, but Witte has picked up some valuable pointers from Melanie Jack, another hardcore player, who has been waiting patiently to challenge the winner of this game.
Jack, who says her top score is also over 400, says, "At my house during family get-togethers, we will sometimes have two or three games going at the same time." A player for more than 50 years, she says her devotion to the game goes so far as to watch television game shows in hopes of picking up new words to use on unwitting challengers.
Binnewig almost seems like a newcomer in comparison when she confesses she's been playing for only "40 years or so. I come from a family of eight, including some English teachers, so competition could get pretty fierce."
I look over at the board being used for the Pendleton v. Rodriguez match. "Chon," "xi," "xu," "aa" and "joes" all appear as words on the board. The spellchecker on my computer refuses to be believe that "chon" is a Korean coin, "xi" is the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet, "xu" is a Vietnamese coin, "aa" is a soft Hawaiian lava, and "joes" is okay, despite Scrabble's prohibition against proper names, since it is the plural of the word used in the term "a regular joe."
Sylvia Rodriguez, looking slightly bewildered, has taken on another master in Mark Pendleton, who works at Las Cruces' Branigan Library, and who has been playing Scrabble since grade school. Rodriguez wonders aloud if a four-letter word that appears on her rack can be used on the board.
"Sorry, can't use that type of slang," someone replies.
"I play all the time and everywhere," says Binnewig, "and I just heard that there is a new version called Super Scrabble, with a bigger board and quadruple word scores."
The traditional game allows only triple word scores. I would think that purists, like my grandmother, who taught the game to me, my mother and cousin, lexiphanics all, would be highly offended by the encroachment of this upstart game.
I glance one last time at the Rodriguez v. Pendleton game.
"Jauntier," says Pendleton, as he lays down an awful lot of tiles. "Eight plus one, two, three. . . and a triple word score."
Rodriguez puts her hand on her forehead and looks down at the table.