Playing “bop” is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing. –Duke Ellington
I was peacefully enjoying the prime of my senility. Content to watch the carnival of politicians wreathe, contort, and embarrass themselves, turning into figures of pity and scorn as they shamelessly pander and grovel for the highest office in the land. A friend, perhaps concerned about my increasing interest in my other hobby (looking for two identical salt crystals), challenged me to play WORDS WITH FRIENDS, a bastardized form of Scrabble. WWF is an app for those who find talking on the phone, shaving, and making breakfast, all while driving, not challenging enough. Young Type A multi-taskers may squeeze in games with up to twenty opponents during spare seconds of their busy days,or at night as a way to unwind during the slow parts of action movies, or romantic dinners.
For me it is all I am able to do. I have become frustrated, enthralled, and addicted to this silly exercise. I live in a world where vice ((11 points) is better than nice (9 points). and a quarter (17 points) is worth almost twice as much as a dollar (9 points). You can play with strangers of all skill levels to sharpen your game. I prefer to be humiliated by those closest to me. I am not being modest when I say I am not very good. “The Scrabble Book” by Derryn Hinch states that the game is only 12 percent luck, I prefer to believe that I have just been slow to adjust to the bare knuckles reality of WWF.
Hinch suggests there are two approaches. With thinly veiled disdain, he describes expansive play, laying down long words that may impress your partner but produce few points. The rest of the chapter is devoted to playing tight which sadly does not involve drinking. A tight strategy focuses on hooks (like plumbers’ elbow joints) that redirect the game to triple letter and triple word squares. The point total of a well placed pluralizing “S” or a prefix or suffix can dwarf the original offering. Just yesterday my cleverly arranged CAVORT (13 pts.) was eclipsed by my opponent’s added “S” in a triple word square. The skillful player then sandwiched my word with parallel two and three letter words. I am not sure if “words” like (EF, TA, XU, EFS, PFT, SUQ) are vocabulary building, but 93 points later I was in no mood to cavort.
The tight approach is more than making words/points; it features a defensive plan of attack. Like the game Stalingrad (which I have never played but witnessed a roommate’s two year battle in college), WWF requires blocking your opponent with words that cannot be added to, and capturing the triple letter and triple word squares. It is also imperative to memorize small obscure words that do not come up in polite conversation like crwth (an ancient stringed instrument), phpht (an alternative form of pht), and cwm (Welsh for valley). I have yet to use glycls (a residue present in a polypeptide), or thymy (fragrant smell of thyme) but I am ready.
WWF also records when moves are made. I know more of the sleep and work habits of my friends than I care to. The game is something of a Rorschach test. Liberal arts majors lay down different words than engineers. I play with my son Ben, whose final scores almost double mine. This is fine with me as he will someday be providing my care. I watch the window for my neighbor. She and her kids are blithely unloading their Costco run, not realizing I have the drawn the “Z” to make the word SYZYGY! One friend called to make sure our relationship would survive our fervent long distance war of words.
Besides working my brain a little, playing has helped exorcise some negative feelings I had buried about competition. Scrabble games of my youth began with harmless bluffing and degenerated into loud altercations. Some boor would think that if you slowly enunciated the word but in a sufficiently loud and menacing tone it would jog the memory of the other players. Invariably Noah Webster’s name would be impugned, and the dictionary thrown across the room. A pleasant element of WWF is the immediate (no appeal) scoring feature. This is not Scrabble, there are word discrepancies, omissions and head scratching inclusions, but the resulting peace, as the commercial says, is priceless.
Tom H. Cook currently holds a record of 5-12 (single play high score of 76 points) since devoting most of his waking hours to Words With Friends. He is beginning to like non-Scrabble playing people better.