If a player wins at Scrabble, and there’s nobody to see the victory …

Scrabble As a literate individual, I like to think that I excel at playing Scrabble. I’m better than average, but I rarely best my three biggest challengers: My sister Pesha, who was valedictorian of her high school class; my niece, who has a PhD in community gardening; and my niece’s husband, a medical doctor. I can start out with a decent score — say, 30 points for my first move — and often hold my own for a good part of the game. Then suddenly one of these dynamos will add something like “Q-U-I-D-N-U-N” to an existing “C,” or enact a triple play of seven-letter words along the lines of “B-R-A-Y-I-N-G,” “R-E-S-O-R-T-S” and “C-R-E-A-T-O-R,” and I am bushwhacked. No matter how serviceably I have been playing, I will spend the rest of the game limping along 40, 50, even 150 points behind.

This weekend when Pesha and I were visiting my parents, we binged on Scrabble the way other addictive personalities abuse gin. By the third or fourth game, my sister used my aptly placed “U” from my own seven-letter mop-up — U-N-S-A-V-O-R-Y — to play the word “S-Q-U-E-A-L-E-R-S. That’s a nine-letter word netting two triple-word scores for a total of 203 points. She ended up with a final score  in the 440s. I too had my best-ever score in the low 420s. Yet once again my efforts were feeble in the face of the Scrabble-schwester.

One of my shortcomings as a Scrabble enthusiast is my disdain for so-called Scrabble words, mutations such as “na” — a variant of “nah” — and “tipi” instead of “teepee” — that serve to block your opponent from building out more conventional point-worthy words. Just because a romance writer once wrote about the steamy passion of an Arapaho maiden for a Nebraska cattlehand in a plains “tipi,” should the Scrabble dictionary legitimize the unauthorized spelling? On the grounds that orthography, not to mention human comprehension, profited greatly from standardized spelling, “tipi” ought to be banned from play. What’s to stop somebody — me, for example — from putting down “podbird” if I can define it as a woman who flits about listening to a podcast? True, the word hasn’t made it to a standard dictionary, but maybe now that I’ve used it on a blog post, some Scrabble minesweeper will ferret it out of the WWW and include it in the next edition of the Scrabble dictionary.

Pesha’s magnificent Scrabble score got us to talking about our small, unwitnessed victories. As I have since learned, her mid-400s score is not even close to the highest Scrabble score ever, a distinction that belongs to a carpenter from Massachusetts named Michael Cresta. About eighteen months ago, he racked up 830 points in a Scrabble club game. It doesn’t matter. Pesha consistently plays like a devil, peeling off two seven-letter words in a row, dropping the “Z” and “J” on triple-letter spots that catapult her leagues ahead of me. Sadly, as long as she plays in such recondite venues as our parents’ home, nobody will ever know how good she really is.

In other words, it may well be that a Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville recorded sound seventeen years earlier than Edison. But Edison had the pluck to grab the spotlight. Many of us little people indeed have a speck of singing ability, literary skill or Scrabble prowess, but unless we record them for posterity, nobody will ever know how we excelled. You can’t help but wonder what feats of intellect, artistry and athleticism occur routinely, and privately, to elevate us past the anonymity of our own lives.


Create a word cloud of my text.



  1. Pesha Rubinstein said

    Wasn’t this the point of A Separate Peace? The heroic is achieved in everyday life as much as it is in the headlines.

  2. modestine said

    Even here, dear sister, I cannot best you: I never read A Separate Peace, and I actually don’t have a clue what it’s about!

  3. modestine said

    My sister and I are such arrogant Scrabble players that we set up our games without using a dictionary we both agree on. Consequently, we argue about whether a particular aggregation of letters is really a word. She found three such aggregations on Dictionary.com (Note how she signs her e-mail) .

    Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1) – Cite This Source – Share This
    na /nɑ, nə/ Pronunciation Key – Show Spelled Pronunciation[nah, nuh] Pronunciation Key – Show IPA Pronunciation Chiefly Scot.
    –adverb 1. no.
    2. not; in no way; by no means.
    –conjunction 3. nor; neither.

    American Heritage Dictionary – Cite This Source – Share This
    mo·a (mō’ə) Pronunciation Key
    n. Any of various flightless ostrichlike birds of the family Dinornithidae, native to New Zealand and extinct for over a century.


    American Heritage Dictionary – Cite This Source – Share This te·pee also tee·pee or ti·pi (tē’pē) Pronunciation Key
    n. pl. te·pees or ti·pis
    A portable dwelling of certain Native American peoples, especially on the Great Plains, consisting of a conical framework of poles covered with skins or bark.

    I-M-P-E-R-I-O-U-S-L-Y yours,

  4. I had a disdain for short Scrabble words as well, so I changed the game and published the result. Now such words are of little importance.


    Hope you will take a look.


  5. Tracy said

    I think what’s most frustrating is if you play Scrabulous on Facebook and you know some dictionaries have the word you just threw down but it’s not in the Scrabulous dictionary, so the word doesn’t count. It’s tough to reason with the computer.

  6. modestine said

    Here’s another issue. You could be using a Scrabble dictionary that’s, say, five years old. Most likely, it won’t include words such as “bot,” “botnet,” “malware” and even “blog.” How will you convince a player who is unfamiliar with these words that they are, in fact, real words?

  7. modestine said

    Get this: I just did a Google search for “podbird” and the results led me back to my WordPress blog post. I’m wondering if a word becomes legitimate by dint of its appearance on the Internet. If that’s the case, I ought to have been more thoughtful about my definition. Maybe a podbird is simply somebody who loves to listen to — or create — podcasts.

  8. modestine said

    I have written about the U.S. presidential elections; the Holocaust; playwriting, and sundry other topics trivial and sublime. Not one of my other blog posts has generated as many responses from people I do not personally know than this one about Scrabble. Who knew that a post about Scrabble would trump even Barack Obama?

    For you diehard gamesters of every stripe: You might be interested in hearing a 5-minute podcast I did with an artificial intelligence researcher who studies the relationship between playing poker and managing risk:

    Teaching computers the art of bluffing (and other human strategies)

  9. Pesha Rubinstein said

    Those two-letter words are part and parcel of Scrabble. If you don’t like ’em, you don’t like the game, and you will just need to invent another one like WildWords. The rules that allow for 2-letter words in Scrabble are rules; it’s not like adding $500 to the middle of the Monopoly board that goes to anyone landing on “Just Waiting.” Those 2-letter words in Scrabble teach us that no matter how frustrating it may be, “ro” and “te” just aren’t words–as much as we sometimes want them to be.

    And, Modestine, as for unknowns commenting on your Scrabble post more than on your Obama post–it just goes to show you what Americans believe really matters in their lives. I find our Scrabble games a lot more gripping than the latest political thrust and parry.

  10. modestine said

    Here’s what we wordsmith types have failed to understand about Scrabble: It’s a game. A game is primarily about winning. It’s not necessarily about being elegant or smart. So, if you have a particular rack with, say, the letters J-O-W-R-A-T-H, and you play W-R-A-T-H for twelve points over a strategically placed J-O because “wrath” strikes you as a better word than “jo,” then you are not playing to win. And if you’re not playing to win, why are you playing a game?

    So, sister, I agree with you once again.

    As for my short essay about Scrabble attracting more posts than my political essays, what can you say about a presidential campaign where the Today Show’s Anne Curry gets to follow Barack Obama around on the hustings and ask him, “Who do you like better? The Beatles or the Stones?”

  11. Janet said

    I didn’t know you were a Scrabble freak, Barbara. I love it too and play to win, though I do disdain Scrabble words. Now we have another activity to share.

  12. Edie said

    Hey Brook,

    I wonder what Hebrew Scrabble is like… I bet just about any 3-letter consonant sequence (shoresh) constitutes a word.

  13. modestine said

    I forgot to mention that Scrabble brings out the road-rage in my sister and me. Besides playing to win, we also enjoy hurling insults at each other. For example, Pesha tells me that in old age, “You’ll be sitting in your wheelchair tethered to your colostomy bag. Access-a-Ride will pick you up for your daily Meals-for-Wheels trip and I’ll sneak in and cut your bag. I’ll make sure you go flying out the back of the van.” This curse is supposed to unnerve me. Let me reassure you that I simply redouble my efforts to vanquish my sister.

    Edie, if you’re right about being able to play any three-letter consonant sequence in Hebrew, maybe there’s no such thing as a bad rack in Hebrew Scrabble. On the other hand, imagine playing Scrabble in a language where short words dominate. I’m sticking to English!

  14. mirel said

    Okay, I’m weighing in too, and I don’t even play Scrabble!

    I was struck by this comment in your original post:

    “Many of us little people indeed have a speck of singing ability, literary skill or Scrabble prowess, but unless we record them for posterity, nobody will ever know how we excelled. You can’t help but wonder what feats of intellect, artistry and athleticism occur routinely, and privately, to elevate us past the anonymity of our own lives.”

    How true, and how poignantly stated. I have been thinking similar thoughts lately but of course not recording them in an fashion, let alone for posterity. That is where we diverge, Modestine. You somehow have found the self-confidence (despite your nom de plume) to record your musings and put them out for all to see. I admire you for this.

  15. DarkPrince said

    Pesha, do tell me about A Separate Peace. The heroic in everyday life.

    Thats a thought for the day…

  16. DarkPrince said

    Aha! Here is a link to 2-letter words in Scrabble..


    Now we can take away the arcane knowledge bit and focus on true ingenuity..

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