A Circuitous Route to Intellectual Stimulation

I learned how to play SCRABBLE when I was about 10 years old. When I visited my grandmother Inez on Stinson Beach, we’d play almost every night after dinner. She’d make herself a cup of tea and we’d eat gingersnaps and chocolate cookies spread with butter and sit with furrowed brows in front of the SCRABBLE board.

Who has time for games like that today? A solid game can take one or two hours, and who has leisure time after dinner? Who even has time to eat dinner?

So now, I’m hooked on the 21st century version of SCRABBLE: “Wordfeud” on my smartphone. This online game has a board and letters just different enough from SCRABBLE that they don’t get sued by Hasbro.

In Wordfeud, players have up to 72 hours to make a move. I play mostly with random opponents, ones with online names like tareco or danjspice, strangers halfway across the world. Players come from a wide range of levels. There are, of course, the non-SCRABBLE-trained neophytes who waste a valuable U on “HUG” or those who waste S’s on words like “PUSH.” But you also find opponents who play words such as “ZATI,” “RATTENED,” and “BUNIAS,” and then you feel oh-so-impressed by their brilliance (or you feel oh-so-stupid).

Of course, because you are playing electronically, you can always put down a random word with whatever letters you have, even if you don’t think it’s a word, and Wordfeud will tell you if the word is real or not. So those brilliant players might just be skilled at experimentation.

Never with my grandmother Inez. We played for real, and you had to know a word was a word before playing it. If she were feeling generous, she might let you look up a word in the dictionary. I still have in the game box slips of paper showing some of our old scores, labeled at the top with I and K, games that I don’t even remember playing now.

Wordfeud, on the other hand, is like SCRABBLE with ADHD. You can have three or six or 12 games going at once. A game can go on for weeks if players make a move a day, and those little microbursts of morphemes can be irritatingly slow. So you must have multiple games going on at once or you can fall asleep waiting for someone to play. I find myself making moves while I’m watching TV, on the phone, or even talking to my 13-year-old son. He actually said to me the other day, as we were watching a movie and I was playing Wordfeud, “Cell phones down.”

But somewhere in the world, maybe just down the street from me, or maybe in Iowa, or perhaps over in Australia, someone is just waiting for me to play the word “MELIC” and wonder exactly where that came from!

My son, meanwhile, plays online SCRABBLE. He likes that better than Wordfeud, only because of its “Best Word” feature. If he doesn’t know what to play, he simply clicks “Best Word” and the computer plays the highest scoring word possible on his behalf. He finds it very efficient, and satisfying. And he often wins.

My “Best Word” for that, which I made a point to tell him? C-H-E-A-T-I-N-G.