Monday, September 15, 2008

Web is handy when all you can get live is pity-Scrabble

Simply Living

(First appeared on September 15, 2008 in Orlando Sentinel)

I've been playing a lot of online Scrabble lately. Instead of moving wooden tiles by hand, I've been sitting in front of a computer screen typing word plays on a keyboard. I had no idea online Scrabble could be such fun.

Thanks to the broad reach of the World Wide Web, any time of the day or night, someone somewhere shares my enthusiasm for creating bingos -- that's Scrabble terminology for high-scoring seven letter words. About a month ago, I joined ISC -- International Scrabble Club -- and now have at my fingertips an endless supply of word-loving compadres.

Since I began playing, I've competed against people from throughout the United States and Canada. My most distant opponent lives in Kuwait. I lost that game.

Knowing how much I love Scrabble, my daughter's boyfriend, Brett, a tournament player and Scrabble Club organizer who lives in Massachusetts, suggested I try playing online.

"It's easy," he said, but I didn't believe him at first.

Experience taught me that most new computer programs involve a steep learning curve. The idea of adding yet another task to my already heavy computer load seemed too overwhelming to consider.

So I didn't.

For several months after Brett's suggestion, I continued to beg my 16-year-old son to play with me. Every now and then -- emphasis on "then" -- he relented and played. It felt more like pity-Scrabble than anything.

"All right," he could have been thinking. "I might as well give her a little attention. She's been asking me to play with her for weeks."

Despite his lack of gusto, those games were always fun. Toby is a terrific player and, while his teenage ego requires him to believe he is far better than me in just about everything, when it comes to Scrabble, I feel we're well-matched. But time takes its toll and after he refused my umpteenth request, I reconsidered Brett's suggestion.

One day I took the plunge.

"Show me how to play online," I asked my youngest child.

As a young math-loving, chess-playing person, Toby has an intuitive ability to understand such things. For several years now he has been a member of ICC, the chess equivalent of online Scrabble, and both programs operate similarly.

After a few basic instructions, I was ready to begin. I picked out a "handle" -- the online name I would use -- and selected the type of game I wanted to play. My choices included the number of minutes I wanted each match to last, whether I wanted to be penalized for using nonacceptable words and whether I would play against anyone or only players who met certain pre-selected criteria. So far, so good.

That first game remains a blur. I recall being scared I would do something wrong. I was confused in the beginning and I'm pretty sure I lost. Fortunately, Toby stood by to guide me along.

"Quick! Quick!" I panicked right after the game began. "How do I rearrange the letters on my rack?"

"You can move them with the mouse or right click alongside the rack and they'll be rearranged automatically," he responded calmly.

Although I didn't think it would happen, I started regaining my composure by the fifth or sixth move. Virtual Scrabble began to make sense. I've learned more new words in one month than in all my previous years of playing and I eagerly anticipate the day my rating breaks 1,000. Toby says I'm addicted and he's probably right. The other night I woke up from sleep and was unable to lie back down without words flashing through my mind, my body restlessly tossing and turning.

"I'll get up for a little while," I told myself as I wandered down the hall toward my office.

"Maybe I'll sign on for a few minutes just to see if anyone's playing."

At 3 a.m., three wins, one loss and four bingos later, I made my way back to the bedroom. I'd gained a few points and added the words "sware," "cadi," and "fou" to my burgeoning vocabulary. I also fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed and slept like a baby. If that's what being addicted is all about, sign me up. Wait -- I'm already signed up. Good, then let the games begin.

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