Scrabble at the Firefly
Novices and hotshots
by Michael Betzold
S, Q, U, M, L, I, E.
Tom looks despairingly at his rack and then out the window of the Firefly Club. The fading light of dusk seems to represent his hopes of winning.
A table away, Amy plays a Z on a triple letter square to make "za" for thirty-one points.
"Short for pizza. It's one of the new two-letter words."
"Look at the list," Amy says, and hands over a photocopied two-letter word list: aa, fe, mm, xu, all 125 of them.
Nearby, LaRon is telling a sad story: "I've had three bingos but no place to put them."
His opponent, Steve, plays "doosies." With Steve, it's not always clear whether he has misspelled or he's just hoping it looks right.
"Would you challenge that?" LaRon asks the room. Susan, bustling over with a drink, winks at Steve. "Don't trust that guy," she advises LaRon.
At the Firefly Club on Wednesdays, happy hour is devoted to Scrabble. For more than a year, Susan Chastain has opened her jazz nightclub at 5 p.m. once a week to all who want to play the world's best word game. The club provides the boards and tiles. You bring the brains.
Participants run the gamut from novices to hotshots, from teenagers to septuagenarians. Chastain's ebullient hospitality sets the tone: the atmosphere is unintimidating. Yet there's plenty of serious strategizing. Folks who think they're pretty good Scrabble players often get a rude awakening when they play outside their circle of family and friends learning, perhaps, how foolish it is to hoard your Q or J, and how smart it is to trade in tiles early in the game.
Many who come to the Firefly are lifelong devotees of Scrabble, a game whose pleasures are enduring and uncanny. Like the perfect distances that Alexander Cartwright devised between the bases in baseball, Alfred Butts's genius is one of life's mysteries. The game he invented in 1938,
with its fifteen-by-fifteen grid, its 100 letter tiles, and its bonus squares, still offers discoveries every time it's played.
Purists may balk at the bizarre words in the new, fourth edition of the official Scrabble dictionary. But don't worry if you don't know a qat from a cwm the Firefly regulars are happy to share their tips. Some of us, anyway.
Across from Tom, I hook the S in "toast" to the end of "jog" to score twenty-one points. But Tom empties his rack with "milquetoasts" for a game-breaking ninety-eight. My long-suffering formidable opponent has finally given me my comeuppance.
[Review published March 2006]