W-A-R, What Is It Good For?
Eighteen points on a triple word score

There's still a place in America where the old folks gather for a little canasta, maybe a cha-cha lesson or two. It's a sweet place -- a Rockwell kind of place.

See also...
... by Dan Reines
... in the Scope section
... from September 16, 1999

National Scrabble Association Club No. 195 is not that place. Once a week, West LA's WWII generation breeze in to the Mahood Center for, oh, 15 minutes of small talk over weak decaf. But that's where the smiling ends...and the shitstorm begins. Toting personalized Scrabble boards like hustlers with pool cues, players scramble for space and set up their boards in wild-eyed silence. No time for chit-chat: Each player gets 25 minutes total -- think fast or they dock you points.

I'm a newbie, a "living room player," so they pair me with their worst, Lois Hoover. Lois has long, silver hair pulled back in an unthreatening bun. She looks like she could be my grandma -- except she's wearing Scrabble-tile earrings bearing her initials. I'm screwed.

I go first. The chess clock's ticking -- loudly -- as I ponder my tiles (and my sweaty hands). After four minutes, I quit searching for a seven-letter "bingo" and go with S-E-T: a whopping six points. I look at Lois. Lois stares back at me...then at the clock...then back at me. Taking the hint, I hit the timer and reach into the bag of tiles...and by the time I'm done -- eight seconds later -- she's got S-N-O-T on the board. Her glare says: "I will break you."

For the next forty minutes or so, Lois and I trade moves like Melle Mel trading rhymes with Mel Gibson. For every tortured word I scrape up, she's got an immediate and ingenious answer. Me: H-I-P. Lois: X-E-N-O-N. Me: O-F. Lois: S-A-P-I-E-N-T, with the 50-point bonus. If only she had the tiles, I'm sure she'd drop G-A-M-E--O-V-E-R on my sorry ass.

The low point comes near the end of the round, when I spell out H-O-P and Lois responds with "No." Not no as in "No, that's not a legal word." No as in "Boy, ain't you got any sense? Pick up those tiles and put down a better word." I'd take her up on it, too, except by now I'm well past my 25-minute limit and I've actually started losing points on each turn. By the bitter end, Lois, the dead-last novice of the Saturday morning regulars, has whacked me by a good 200 points.

Bloodied and mortified, I squirrel out as 35 oldsters self-consciously avoid eye contact with me. Next time, I'll stick to the cha-cha.

Dan Reines is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He is considering tattooing his name onto his bicep in Scrabble tiles