Trail Times Columnist Louise McEwan

Scrabble has surprising benefits

“Believe it or not, Scrabble has a spiritual element,” writes McEwan.

“Why do we play this game?” I asked my husband for the umpteenth time.

I was referring to Scrabble, and it was not going well. Despite the claims on the box, not every word is a winner. Not all Scrabble games are fun.

It is definitely not fun to lose by over a hundred points. Nor does winning by a similar margin give much satisfaction.

We don’t follow all of the official game rules. We don’t challenge words. Consulting a dictionary before laying down tiles is acceptable to us. And, although the official Scrabble rules permit the use of obsolete and archaic words, we don’t.

We know a great many uncommon two-letter words, words that would never make it into everyday conversation. Yet, we use these words with impunity when desperate to make a play.

Our primary source for these words is a dictionary we’ve dubbed “Cheapo”. Cheapo is a tattered Oxford English pocket sized dictionary that belonged to one of my children when in elementary school. Cheapo’s best feature is a word game supplement that comprises two-letter words and words beginning with “q” not followed by “u”.

Unfortunately for us, most of the “q” not followed by “u” words are obsolete or archaic. Nevertheless, words like “qi” (life force) and “qat” (Ethiopian bush) have rescued me from humiliation on more than one occasion. I recently discovered “qivuit” (belly wool of the musk-ox), and can’t wait for an opportunity to lay it down, preferably pluralized for a seven letter word bonus.

Two-letter words are an essential part of play, especially during frustrating games when the Scrabble gods are against you. Building boxes with cheap little words can be worth a surprising number of points. The strategic placement of “zo” (hybrid yak) can be worth a minimum of sixty-two points.

There are some games, though, when even Cheapo can’t help pull a rabbit out of the hat. Those are the games when playing “ot” (urchin) or “ai” (three-toed sloth) for four points leads to the question, “Why do we play this game?”

“Why, indeed?” We play for reasons both mundane and profound.

Scrabble is a great way to learn new words – like qivuit. Without Scrabble, learning new words might require reading the dictionary, something my daughter did at age nine to increase her vocabulary. Not being quite so Type A, I prefer Scrabble games.

Scrabble requires adding, multiplying, and recalling the three times table. The scorekeeper has the added challenge of adding points while simultaneously plotting his next play. Without Scrabble, I’d probably never do much arithmetic. I’d need to sign up for some brain games, instead.

Playing Scrabble is always challenging, even when games are going well. Strategy matters; a good player manages the tiles on the rack with both an offensive and defensive eye.

Scrabble can reduce an entertainment budget. It can be a pleasant way to spend time together, whether sitting before a fire on a snowy afternoon or catching some rays on a beach. Once while on vacation on Vancouver Island, we looked up from the Scrabble board to see an orca and calf swimming a few hundred meters offshore. We hadn’t needed that expensive whale watching tour after all.

Believe it or not, Scrabble has a spiritual element. Because it requires concentration and focus, Scrabble keeps one in the moment. Like meditative or contemplative practices, it calms the restless churning of the grist mill of the mind.

Scrabble teaches patience and humility. It is pointless to rail when a game is going badly or to crow after a clever, high scoring play. Pride goes before a fall, and the tide may turn against you. A drubbing is just as possible as a lopsided win.

“Why do we play this game?” I asked my husband for the umpteenth time. “Because we are hopeful people,” he replied. He’d hit the nail on the head. Like a new day, every Scrabble game represents a new beginning, another opportunity to face challenges, successes and failures with grace. We play Scrabble because hope springs eternal.

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