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Illustration of Scrabble board with “In defense of...” spelt out in letters Illustration by Alyssa Nassner

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In defense of Scrabble

One family’s 30-year long game and the unavoidable meanings of words

When I was born, my parents — a writer and an artist living in the southeastern most corner of Eastern Europe — were living in a dorm room, which was in no way equipped to handle a baby. I was a terribly light sleeper, and my poor parents found themselves needing to find something they could do quietly so as not to disturb my rare moments of peace.

So, they purchased a Scrabble set and played by candlelight, either to “keep it romantic” or because they didn’t own a desk lamp. My mom says she doesn’t remember which, but rushes to add that this is the reason there are wax stains on the little canvas pouch where the letter tiles go. This random board game purchase would mark the beginning of what is now a tournament that’s been going on for nearly three decades, spanning two generations, and featuring many friends as guest players at our table.

Growing up at the table

A battered old box of Scrabble, the spaces rendered with Cyrillic characters.
The original Scrabble set, superior and now in semi-retirement only because we’ve lost a few letter tiles.
Photo: Neda Marie Valcheva

I don’t remember the first time I played a game of Scrabble, but I’m sure I was too young to know any good words and got my ass thoroughly kicked by my dad. If I looked really hard through the piles of scoresheet notebooks from the late ‘90s, I could probably find the exact date, but these days those are sealed away and archived like museum pieces. It turns out that the glue that holds together a notepad starts to give up a few decades into its service. What was once a meticulously kept scoreboard has begun to dissolve into a pile of pages filled with numbers and doodles in the margins.

A carefully lined page with red ink shows the scores of Scrabble games. It says “Coronavirus Tournament 2020” at the top in Cyrillic letters.
Day one of the Coronavirus Tournament 2020, dated March 14.
Photo: Neda Marie Valcheva

When my baby sister was finally old enough to spell, we started including her in our games. I remember being extremely frustrated, the way only a preteen can be, whenever she’d take too long to write out some short, simple word and inevitably lose anyway.

We’re now both in our 20s and we’ve been living away from home, and in different countries, so it’s always a treat whenever we get to be back at our childhood apartment’s dining room table and play with our mom. Dad rarely joins nowadays, either to show mercy and let any of us win, or because he’s scared his daughters would finally beat him. Either way, it’s a winning strategy as he’s been promoted to argument-settler and arbiter instead.

Playing in quarantine

In March of last year, like much of the rest of the world, we all ended up at home and in quarantine together. On the first evening of Bulgaria’s first lockdown, I wrote the words “Coronavirus Tournament” next to the date in the scoresheet notebook because this weird new reality had to be accounted for in my notes — the same way I’d accounted for games played on birthdays, holidays, and exceptionally late nights. It felt important to give our lockdown games a name, as if within our house I could forget the circumstances that kept us inside and focus instead on the fact that we were all home and had time to be with each other.

My family is a Scrabble family the way other families are roadtrip families, or Christmas card picture families, or we actually use words to express our feelings families. When my dad saw us set up the table that night, and decided to partake for the first time in ages, I took all four chairs around the table’s being occupied as all the reassurance I needed that we were about to face this period together, and that it would somehow be OK. I don’t think anyone ever verbalized any of that, but the camaraderie of that first coronavirus tournament game was enough.

Back then, I expected all of this to last a few months at worst. A year later, and right as we were all starting to recover from our own run-ins with the virus, we found ourselves celebrating. My sister had submitted her undergraduate dissertation from the confines of quarantine, so we marked the occasion by playing another installment of the coronavirus tournament.

Playing together this past year has become a ritual of sorts, or a group meditation. Whenever any of us sit down at the table, it kickstarts a series of traditions that are comforting in their consistency: The board always faces my sister, while the rest of us have to deal with looking at it from the sides; we each draw one letter to determine the order we play in; I always take the notes; the winner is always the one to put the game away at the end. The losing parties get the satisfaction of watching you put away all 100 tiles, so whoever won can’t gloat too much.

The past year has shown me more than ever how grounding it is to have a green board with hard-set rules to return to, and it’s no surprise that the comfort of our game has creeped into every single member of my family’s art, at least once, in one way or another.

Words about words

A ceramic mug with a pleasant scene on it. Scrabble tiles flow around the rim.
This mug was commissioned to my ceramicist mother by a couple who has a similar relationship to the game.
Photo: Neda Marie Valcheva

We have never spoken about the significance of our never-ending game, but I know it means the same to everyone else in my family. We keep returning to using those perfect squares that branch off into words in all directions. They are a kind of visual metaphor in our respective artmaking, and I believe that speaks to a shared understanding. Spending time with the board, and the tiles, and the people at the table is a language of love. It is an expression of care and togetherness, which we then seek to share with the outside world — either through the art we’ve made, or through a simple invitation to play.

Lemonade salesman says: They deal in words because words make sense. LOSS is just four points. COPE is twice as many. Those are good words, simple words, and they maye more sens than what’s actually happening outside the window. It’s easy to watch the sunrise knowing you spent the night winning.
From my play Four Letter Words, in which the Apocalypse happens over the span of a game of Scrabble.
Image: Neda Marie Valcheva

To someone who’s never played the way we do, Scrabble may seem like a game of cramming the dictionary, strategizing to get the most points and outsmarting your friends. In reality, dealing in words with your loved ones will always lead to more than that. In every single game I’ve played, my tablemates and I have found ourselves spotting a narrative where there shouldn’t be any, laughing when words cross over in a way which seems to connect them.

A short film by my sister, Iva.

No one ever remembers the found stories after the game gets put away. Every game is a one-night-only performance; an unrepeatable tale where my family is both the storyteller and the audience. When the curtain falls, the specifics get forgotten and all we’re left with is the memory of another evening spent at play.

Mechanically, Scrabble is not a collaborative storytelling game, but if you play it right, whenever humans and words are involved, a story is ultimately inevitable.


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