Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mother's Day joy at Scrabble tourney is more than words can say

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 18, 2008)

It has been a week since Mother's Day, and I'm still smiling. Instead of celebrating with dinner out, a bouquet of flowers or new earrings, I played in a Scrabble tournament. The tournament actually took place a day before Mother's Day, but the 24-hour discrepancy meant little to this word-game devotee.

In my mind, it was a Mother's Day present from "busy-me" to "have-some-fun-me." And it worked. I had a blast.

Sponsored by the Casselberry Scrabble Club and put on in Geneva at the Sanford Yacht Club, the gathering drew 30 participants. Esther Gluskin, 82, of Orlando was the oldest attendee, and at age 16, my son Toby was the youngest.

It was a pleasantly eclectic mix of people -- men and women, young and old -- all gathered together to share their passion for a game that has fascinated word lovers for more than 70 years.

Invented in 1931 by Albert Butts, an unemployed architect from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the game that combined anagrams with crossword puzzles was initially named LEXIKO and then changed to CRISS CROSS WORDS.

But it didn't capture the attention of a broad audience until Butts joined forces with game entrepreneur James Brunot in the 1940s and coined the name Scrabble, a word meaning "to grope frantically." As a board game, Scrabble is now second only to Monopoly in popularity, with more than 2 million sets in 27 languages sold annually.

Its parent organization, the National Scrabble Association, sanctions more than 200 clubs in North America and sponsors tournaments like the one I attended. For those who can't attend a club or who just want to need to feed their addiction to all things wordy, Scrabble devotees can play online on a variety of Web sites devoted to this 100-tile word game.

Although I've signed up to play online, I have not played a game yet. There are technological hurdles to overcome that I haven't yet conquered -- small hurdles, no doubt, but nonetheless, things to do that I haven't taken the time to figure out.

Maybe that's why I was so excited when Brett Constantine sent me an e-mail about the Orlando-area tournament. Brett is my daughter Jenny's boyfriend. They live in Massachusetts, where Brett organized and runs a sanctioned Scrabble club and regularly attends tournaments.

He and I played one another a few months back during a weekend visit. I think we managed to fit in three games during their brief stay, one of which I even won.

As in any sport where you're striving to improve your game, playing against someone whose level of performance is a step up from your own is an important challenge. I didn't care how many games I lost to Brett -- the fun was in the opportunity to play against someone so good.

That's how I felt on the day of the Casselberry Scrabble Club tournament. It was my first tournament of any kind, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just a little bit scared.

Throughout my entire first game, I exhibited many typical signs of anxiety -- racing heart, sweaty palms and difficulty concentrating. Needless to say, I lost that game, but I won the next and the one after that and two more as well.

For a tournament newbie, my performance wasn't too shabby. I ended up with four wins out of seven games played -- enough to earn $40, the sixth place prize for my division. My son, of course, did better, finishing third -- a payout of $65 -- in the same division.

Toby is a whiz when it comes to competitions. A rising star in the chess world, he has been playing in chess tournaments since he was in third grade. The shelf in his bedroom is lined with trophies, and though I'm not a chess player, I passed my passion for Scrabble on to him when he was young and receptive.

For many years, I won regularly. Ha! Those days are gone. His mental capacity for memorizing esoteric and unusual words far exceeds mine. His focus is solid, and his comfort level for competitive play is well honed from eight years of chess tournaments.

It was a multifaceted treat to play in the Scrabble tournament. I spent an entire day engaged in a mentally stimulating activity that was challenging and fun.

I left the event with prize money in my pocket and, more significant, I managed to successfully detach myself from the cell phone for a full nine hours -- that alone is worthy of celebration.

Add to all this the opportunity to spend quality time with my teenage son sharing an activity that we both enjoy, and I'd say you have a winning combination no matter how you spell it. If that's not what Mother's Day is all about, what is?

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