Chuck Armstrong is a polite, soft-spoken, and engaging man. You’d never guess he is a barracuda at Scrabble.
Did you know there are competitive Scrabble tournaments? I certainly didn’t when I first started frequenting the regular downtown Scrabble game, first held at the old Firefly Club and then at Arbor Brewing Company.
Chuck was a regular there. In the rarefied air of extreme Scrabble prowess, he had also for decades been one of the top players in the country.
Pre-pandemic, the Wednesday night game welcomed anyone who walked in the door. But those poor souls who joined the game for the first time—perhaps because they spotted it in the Observer events listings—were in for a rude awakening. It was like a confident swimmer in a Michigan inland lake plunging into a turbulent ocean. You thought you knew what you were doing—then quickly found yourself losing your bearings.
I’d figured I was good at Scrabble. With family or friends, I usually came out on top. But nothing shatters that illusion like finding yourself 200 points behind after three or four turns—which often happened playing Chuck.
Arbor Brewing games were decidedly not like Scrabble on my home turf. To start with, we never played with more than one opponent. And instead of holding on to the Q, Z, X, and J, I learned to play or dump them ASAP and hoard instead the one-point tiles like E, A, I, N, T, R and especially the S.
Why? Because that maximizes your chances of using all your letters on a turn. Such a “bingo” earns a fifty-point bonus—and with the right tiles you can actually make them happen rather than waiting for them to fall in your lap.
It took me a few years before I mastered this strategy and learned to swim with the big fish. I even dashed off a somewhat oversimplified little book called Bingo!: The Secret to Scrabble Success to spread the new gospel I’d learned.
Most who survived that first plunge into the deep waters of our Wednesday game caught on too. Those of us who had been through the same shock therapy held any newcomers’ hands and gently showed them the ropes.
Our numbers fluctuated from six to a dozen or more—with organizer Steve Lawrence never missing a week. Players came from almost every conceivable walk of life—teachers, nurses, techies, tradespeople—and had a wide range of gaming experience. What we had in common was a certain degree of comfort going out to drink and eat with others nerdy enough yet social enough to meet in a bar and play a word game.
Some players got so serious that they copied Chuck’s “cheat sheets” to take home to study. These included lists of seven-letter words that could be formed from common holdings on your rack, obscure words that include the high-value Z, Q, X, or J, and allowable two- and three-letter words.
To me, that was too much effort, turning a fun pursuit into another chore. Instead, I’d learn new words from seeing them played by others—often by Chuck. That kept me a comfortable notch short of what I considered taking the game too seriously.
A couple times during our long history, Scrabble published a new edition of the official dictionary. That was cause for a few toasts at the table, especially when “qi” and “za” became legal. But when Arbor Brewing closed last June, a casualty of the pandemic, we finally ran out of qi.
In exile, socially distanced, far from the long tables where we’d munch fries while spotting great plays on neighboring boards, we now peck away on our digital devices. Until last August, many of us played Scrabble on an app, but it was abruptly discontinued and replaced by “Scrabble Go,” which adds lots of annoying buzzers and bells and gizmos, rewards of treasure chests and other trinkets, and detours you can take to play other word games. To us, they’re just impediments we have to fight through to play a game of Scrabble.
I still play against Amy, Kelly, Barry, and Keenan, former regulars at Arbor, anytime I want to fiddle on my phone. I have somehow acquired a regular opponent, Louise, who lives in England but lets us play using the American dictionary—the British version allows a dizzying array of words (including “zo”!).
Louise and I are well matched, and she is expert at clogging up the board. In Scrabble, as in bridge and most games I play, I am overaggressive; I don’t play defense well. But playing Louise so much has forced me to learn how to prevent bingos by blocking spaces that might hold a seven- or eight-letter word.
Other Arbor regulars find Scrabble Go too annoying and have scattered to different platforms. Chuck isn’t active in our online circle.
But nothing will ever match that night years ago when he sat down opposite me and everything somehow magically fell into place. An astounding seven bingos later, we each ended up with more than 600 points—and I squeaked out a victory. I’ve never played in that stratosphere before or since.
Or maybe it was all a dream. Like so much before the pandemic, it seems like it happened in another lifetime.