|Medium Light [2.07]
|Alfred Mosher Butts
Day One: Officer Training School, Scrabble Academy
The camera pans over a worn but well-maintained class-room. Wood paneled walls draw the eye and upon these are hung various posters and swish infographics. You can see the frequency chart for English on one wall, with a graph of the evolution of the Arabic lettering system hanging beside it.
The room is filled with austere wooden chairs and desks, behind which are two dozen or so fresh-faced and uniformed officer candidates. Their uniforms are pristine. Their haircuts so precise and straight that you could use them to hang a painting. There’s a kind of nervous energy here – each of them was the top of their class during cadet vocabulary training and now they’re here to become leaders. They have mastered Scrabble. They have lived and breathed Scrabble for most of their young lives. They’re not even sure why they’re in a classroom at all – none of them has anything left to learn. They intend to give themselves, heart and soul, to the word wars. They’re the best wordsmiths this generation has to offer. The best, and the brightest.
The light smattering of chatter abruptly silences as a tall, disheveled man enters the room. He has an patch across one eye, with a livid scar crossing from cheek to forehead underneath its rigid fabric. His insignia proclaims him to be a Sergeant-At-Arms, and he glares at the presumptive classroom of budding officers with an expression bordering on disgust. He wrinkles his nose as if he’s smelled something unpleasant. The classroom comes to reluctant attention. There’s a simmer of obvious discontent in the eyes and expressions all around. This is officer training school – what the hell is a mere sergeant doing as if he has anything to teach anyone here, of all places?
The sergeant sighs and picks up a long, stiff piece of wood. He taps it against the whiteboard. All eyes are on him, albeit with an obvious reluctance. He turns his back to the class and writes on the board with a fading marker that squeaks unpleasantly with each letter. John Keel.
He slowly turns around, and starts to speak.
‘Listen up, rookies. My name is Sergeant-At-Arms John Keel and I am here to teach you what you need to know to survive Scrabble. I know what you’ve been told. Scrabble is a word game. It’s a family game. It’s a bit of harmless fun where the job is to make the best scoring words that you can with the letters you’re randomly given. Oh, I know what they teach you back in the cadets but that kind of thinking is going to get you killed on the battleground. It’s my job here to teach you the difference between the word game you have been taught, and the war game you’ll need to play.’
The class mutters indignantly. They know all about Scrabble. There isn’t one of them that can’t squeak a five-letter word out of a collection of random vowels. Most of them can reliably play down six-letter words in their sleep, and they do. The drills in their cadet classes were intensive.
‘Pay attention, and you might just make it through the first game we’re going to play together. If you don’t pay attention, well – not everyone is expected to make it out of this class as an officer. In fact, take a look to your left. Now take a look to your right. Half of the people you see won’t make it to the end of this programme.’
A dismissive snigger insinuated itself into the tension in the room. Keel snapped his gaze to the back of the class where one young man was smiling to himself with a look of casual insubordination. Keel grinned.
‘You lad’, he barked. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Coates, sir’, he replied.
‘Don’t call me sir, lad. I work for a living. Come up here’
Coates pushed himself up from his desk with a lazy arrogance and sauntered over to the front of the classroom. He threw a wink to one of the girls as he passed. Keel watched him impassively. When Coates arrived at the front of the classroom Keel leaned across his lectern and pressed a button. A projector slowly spun up into life, revealing a set of tiles on the whiteboard at the front of the room. The letters presented were A, R, E, B, A, T and H.
‘Play a word’, said Keel.
Shrugging, Coates played out six letters without hesitating. The class nodded approvingly.
‘Breath, sir’. Coates said. ‘I could also have played ABATER, but that would have lost out on using the H. BATHER was also an option but it wouldn’t have scored better. By placing the B on the double letter tile, and the T across the double word score, I have earned twenty eight points for that play’. He smirked.
His classmates began to talk amongst themselves, debating and discussing the approach. Keel remained silent, permitting the class a few moments to build their consensus. It didn’t take long. The class decided – it was a good word, played with admirable haste.
Keel pointed to one of the young women in the front of the class.
‘Your name?’, he asked.
‘Sibyl, Sarge’, she said.
He nodded approvingly. He liked a quick learner.
‘What’s your opinion on this play?’
‘It’s the optimal word from the tiles he had’, she said.
‘You would have done that too?’
‘Yes si… yes Sarge’, she said.
Keel looked around.
He rolled his good eye. ‘Rubbish, the lot of you’, he said. ‘I don’t know why, every single year, they send me a muppet-full classroom of felt and sewn buttons. It’s like they don’t even care how bad you are at this’.
He then played down two tiles.
‘ I think you’ll find’, he said, ‘that’s forty-two points to me’. The class stared. Coates most of all.
‘That’s not a word, sir’, he protested.
‘Regrettably, lad, it is a perfectly fine Scrabble word. Za – an abbreviation of pizza. As in,’let’s go out for a slice of za’. Having said that, if any of you extend me an invite like that I will strike you in the throat and not feel a bit bad for the bruises I leave behind. People who say ‘za’ are only slightly worse than the cadets who call me sir for a third time because they’re hard of thinking.’
‘But that’s a two-letter word’, protested Coates. ‘It’s a trash word. Only trash people play trash words’
‘It’s a trash word that you opened up for me by leaving an A by a double letter tile. And then you added the pepperoni to my za by ensuring I could play ‘at’ to make the word twice. This, lad, is the Scrabble they play in the trenches. This is the Scrabble they play in the streets. Trash people? No – survivors. This isn’t all about your vocabulary. This is Scrabble as a war game. You play the shortest word you can that will score the most points. You’re not just looking to maximise the points you get in your turn. You’re looking to minimise the points the other bastard is going to get on theirs. Sit back down’
Coates returned to his seat, muttering but visibly chastened.
‘Rule one’, barked Keel. ‘Never play a word longer than you’re comfortable with. Never leave an A or an I open next to a multiplier. Those two letter words are like an assassin’s bullet. A canny player will keep them in their rack until they’ll do some proper damage’
Keel wiped the tiles off the board. ‘Sibyl’, he said, ‘You’re up. These are your tiles’.
They were a motley lot. G, Z, E, O, U, E, T. She pursed her lips. She played out an easy, conservative word.
‘Gout’ said Keel. ‘Where’s all your fancy vocabulary now?’
‘Togue and Touze would have been better scoring words’, she said meekly. ‘But there weren’t any other real options’
‘Why not play them?’
She thought for a moment. ‘Don’t want to waste my assassin’s bullet with Touze’, she said.
‘Excellent’, said Keel. ‘Why not Togue?’
‘Difference is only a point, and its’s safer to play four letters than five. That way I don’t run out of ammo later’
‘Top of the class’, barked Keel, ‘Almost top marks’
‘Almost?’, she asked with disappointment flavoring the word to a piquancy everyone in the class could taste.
‘Don’t waste a G’, said Keel. ‘G is one of the three letters in ING, and ING will get you a seven letter word in more circumstances than you can imagine’
‘With respect, sir’, said Coates – still smarting from his stint at the front of the class, ‘Isn’t a seven letter word even more risky than a five letter word?’
‘It is indeed, Mr Coates. Play small words unless you can play a bingo – that bonus fifty points you get usually makes it worth the risk’
The class made a series of notes. While they did, Keel selected his word. Oi.
‘Oi, for nine points’ he said. Not a great word, but I’ll make up for that later. He pointed his stick at a quiet woman in the middle of the class. ‘Why might I have done that, Ms…?’
‘Uberwald’, she replied, ‘And you did it because you don’t want to be the one opening up the board for another player’
‘Yes!’, roared Keel. The class jumped. ‘Don’t be a scout. Don’t be an explorer. Make sure that when the board opens up, it’s someone else that takes the risk. Play words that force them into moving into tiles they don’t want, and then capitalize on their mistakes’
This… this wasn’t the Scrabble they had been taught to play. Coates frowned.
‘Problem, lad?’, asked Keel. His tone was not unkind.
‘But this is horrible’, Coates almost wailed. ‘This isn’t fun at all! Scrabble is supposed to be about making great words together and showing off how well you do anagrams!’
The class went silent. Keel smiled indulgently for a moment.
‘Fun, eh?’, he asked.
Coates stared miserably.
‘Who the hell told you games were supposed to be fun?’, asked Keel. ‘This isn’t fun. This is war. Scrabble is about controlling the area, dominating the opportunities, and then making sure that you’re the one that comes out on top. Big words, smart words – great for showing off. You’ve got a job to do though. The Marquis of Queensbury has no place here’
‘Okay, let’s give you a fresh draw from the bag, Sibyl’. He shook it and handed it her way.
She drew out A, E, E, Z, E, L, Y. She played down LAZY with the Y connecting GO to make GOY. There were some uncomfortable noises but Keel nodded as the Z landed on the triple word score.
‘Using your bullet, eh?’, he asked. ‘And on only one target?’
‘Somehow Sarge, I don’t see you coming out of cover at a time when it’ll be better for me’.
‘Good word, good job. LAZY with the Z on the triple word score gets you 37 points, and GOY, as politically incorrect a word as that might be, gets you another 7. Don’t let your discomfort with particular words keep you from scoring. Nobody will like you anyway because of the way I’m teaching you to play Scrabble – being ever-so-proper with your words won’t change that basic fact. 44 points. A damn good total, but you’ve run a risk there with the A.
‘I thought you could have an X and play AX’, she said, ‘but I thought I’d take the risk. After all. Maybe I’ll get an X before you’
‘Risky, risky’ said Keel rubbing his chin. ‘It’s not a bad plan but it leaves a lot to chance’
‘Yeah, but the best you could do there would be thirty-nine points and I’d still be ahead on the exchange’
‘Fair dues’, he conceded. ‘A bit early to get rid of a Z but I can’t otherwise fault your thinking. After all, it gets harder to use the higher scoring letters as the game goes and the words from the past constrict your options in the present. The point penalties also mean you don’t want to get stuck with one of those at the end. Save your bullet, but don’t save it too long. Use it when you think it’s best for you and sometimes that’s going to depend on anticipation. When do you expect an opponent to let you play it?’
Absently he played down his word. FEH.
’18 points for FEH, 10 points for AH, 2 points for LE. 30 points. Learn your three-letter words too. If you can’t consistently get at least twenty points per word in a round of Scrabble, at least when playing head to head, you should reconsider your options. Don’t play a four point word and a five point word from a bad rack. Swap your tiles and try to get two thirties to make up for it.’
‘You could still do better’, suggested Uberwald.
‘Probably, probably’, agreed Keel with a disarming amiability. ‘ But I almost certainly can’t make a word that would use the Z, and why might I not want to play a four or five letter word if I can’t?’
‘You open up the triple word’, said Sibyl and Coates together. The latter was now watching the board like a snake, eyes unblinking. This was a different energy to the game that he had been taught. This was more primal. More… animal. Brutal. Better.
Keep wiped the tiles away again and replicated the first game board as he gestured from Coates to join him. He then added the word HOTTER off of the H of Breath .
He handed a new set of tiles to Coates. ‘Show me how to deal with the triple word tile I just opened up’
Coates looked at the tiles. They were rubbish. Nothing high scoring, nothing able to really pull off anything impressive. He thought for a few moments. And then he thought for a few moments more. His training cried out, but he silenced it.
‘If you don’t use it, lad’, nudged Keel, ‘I will in the next turn. Do you want me using that tile?
‘No sarge’, said Coates with conviction. He thought again. He thought harder. He sighed and played down HA_Y.
‘Hazy’, he said mournfully. ‘Had to use a blank to make even that’
‘Not bad’, said Keel. ‘4 points for HE, 2 points for AR, and 27 for Hazy. 33 points overall. Nothing to sniff at’
‘Waste of a triple word score’, muttered Coates.
‘Nah’, said Keel. ‘A waste is if you don’t use it. A calamity is if you let your opponent use it. If you can’t get as much as you want out of a dangerous tile, burn it to the ground so nobody else can use it. Surround it with impossible letters. Lock it up if you have to. Claim it with DOG if that’s all you’ve got in your rack. Just make sure that if you can’t have the tile, nobody else can either.’
Keel sent Sibyl and Coates back to their seats.
‘This isn’t the game as you have been told it is played’, said Keel. ‘If you play Scrabble this way, no-one else will ever want to play it with you. It’s exhausting to look at a board in terms of positional vulnerability. Nobody thinks you’re smart for exploiting the small, agile words in the Scrabble dictionary. They think you’re a dick. This is not fun. We get something different out of this. This is tactical. This is satisfying. Your letters aren’t parts of words. They’re weapons and you need to employ them when you can do the most damage. Let your arsenal accumulate. Keep those S and blanks as long as you can. If you get an ER, an ING or an IER combo then save it for when you can inflict a headshot with a bingo. Scrabble is as much a game of psychology as it is vocabulary. If you play it well a seven letter word will put an unwary opponent so violently onto the backfoot that they won’t even be able to take advantage of the board you open up. Set traps for people, and make sure you don’t set up opportunities. If you’ve got the Z or the Q then take your time to arrange the board so you can really clean up with a later, unexpected, triple letter play. Play your words close – play the game tight. Force everyone else to do the risky plays and then swoop in and take advantage’
‘This is why they send you to me’, said Keel. ‘Your other teachers will tell you about the fun and honour and ‘sporting behaviour’ that you should be bringing to all your games. That’s all fine and noble for them that wants to play that way. Some of you though, you can taste the extra potential in the game now. Scrabble is a terrible game for those that just like to make words. Against someone playing to win, all a long word does is open you up to heartache. The multiplier tiles aren’t nice bonuses to have if you can get them. They’re the military objectives you absolutely have to make sure don’t fall into enemy hands. Imagine them full of military secrets – you’d burn those bunkers if you had to and so you should here. This is a game that doesn’t tell you how good you are as a writer, but how good you are as a warrior. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why Scrabble is one of the finest games that has ever been birthed from human imagination. This is why it is one of only a handful, a tiny handful, of perfect scoring games on Meeple Like Us.’
He snapped his stick against the table.
‘Now, pair up. Coates and Sibyl, you face off together. Everyone else, turn your desks towards each other. You’ll play to best of three. Whoever loses their tournament is out of this class and out of the officer training school. You heard me. Play for war or play for words. That’s your choice. But whatever you do, play Scrabble to win. ‘