Vocab

Friday - - Leisure -

Scram­bling to win We move on from cross­words this week to Scrab­ble – a game I view with am­biva­lent feel­ings. On the credit side, it’s a word game and word games are my pas­sion; it’s com­pet­i­tive and you get to broaden the scope of your vo­cab­u­lary from words the op­po­nent puts down, which you didn’t know the mean­ing of or weren’t aware ex­isted.

Hey, scratch that last one and shove it on the debit side – for Scrab­ble not only al­lows hun­dreds of words that you and I (not diehard Scrab­blers) weren’t aware of, the game doesn’t re­quire any player to know what those words mean.

The source of ref­er­ence for look­ing up al­low­able words in the event of a chal­lenge has evolved (I pre­fer the word de­gen­er­ated) from a good com­pre­hen­sive dic­tionary (hard copy or online) to mere lists of ‘le­gal’ words stripped of their def­i­ni­tions. Th­ese were ini­tially pub­lished as “Of­fi­cial Scrab­bleWords” and are now ref­er­enced online with pro­grammes like Zyzzyva (a clever word there, it be­ing the last word on the sub­ject). In other words, a cu­ri­ous player can’t peek next to a word to look at its mean­ing, be­cause it isn’t there.

In its present ver­sion, there­fore, Scrab­ble has been re­duced to a purely math­e­mat­i­cal game, one in which play­ers al­ter­nately place one to seven num­bered tiles on the board in such a fash­ion as to max­imise their score and min­imise their op­po­nent’s op­por­tu­ni­ties. High­scor­ing play­ers have emerged from among pre-teens of the texts­peak era and from among na­tion­al­i­ties who can barely speak English.

An idle thought then springs as a nat­u­ral corol­lary: why not do away with the dic­tionary en­tirely, al­low­ing any com­bi­na­tion of let­ters to count as a “word”? Re­tain only one fierce ob­jec­tive: to win at all costs.

A lit­tle in­ter­net surf­ing yielded the as­ton­ish­ing fact that this was pro­posed as a vari­a­tion for jaded play­ers as far back as 1974. One ed­i­tor com­mis­sioned a Scrab­ble board di­a­gram, and the high­est sin­gle-move score pos­si­ble in such a no-dic­tionary Scrab­ble game was 3,119 points, with a fi­nal com­bined score of 5,609! Any­one in­ter­ested in see­ing the moves re­quired to reach that score can mail me at fri­day@ gulfnews.com.

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