A perfect game

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/22/20

I’ve been playing Scrabble for almost as long as I can remember, introduced to the classic board game by my parents when I was young.

I most associate Scrabble with the beach, especially those …

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A perfect game

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Posted

I’ve been playing Scrabble for almost as long as I can remember, introduced to the classic board game by my parents when I was young.

I most associate Scrabble with the beach, especially those trips to the North Carolina coast I remember from growing up. Every summer, we spent a week in early August at a rented ocean-front “cottage” — a durable old stilt house on a sparse stretch of sand and dune just south of Carolina Beach — and our family’s well-used Scrabble set always went with us.

I was lucky to get to spend a week every summer at that place that, to me, felt like paradise. The days offered swimming in the ocean and body-surfing and tanning and walking and fishing. And the nights offered a long list of fun things, too, including Scrabble.

From evening to evening — and summer to summer — the players varied. Sometimes my sister might have a friend along for the week, or an aunt or uncle would show up; but I especially remember one epic game of Scrabble that pitted me — the kid — against my older sister, my father and my maternal grandmother, whose great skill with crossword puzzles also served her well in Scrabble.

As the designated underdog, I wanted to beat the competition. I even came close to doing it; was neck-and-neck with grandma, in fact, when she not only spelled a word to which I raised an objection, believing “utile” too convenient and absurd-sounding to be anything other than made-up, she also demonstrated the naked audacity to do so at the very spot on the playing board that I was eying for my next move, a move I knew would be a late-game game-changer.

It turned out, after sources came forward to confirm, that grandma — not the young upstart, surprisingly— was right. Utile was (is) a word. The play stood, the judges ruled. The game proceeded, my next move a disappointment after my planned play had been thwarted.

Though I went on to lose the game that night, some 45 years ago, on the plus side I learned a word, though there’s still something about “utile” I find a little questionable, as real words go, “utile” not serving much practical linguistic purpose, best I can tell, beyond crosswords and Scrabble.

It was, as I said, an epic game.

But for as long as I’ve played Scrabble, it took me all those years — until exactly last weekend — to participate in what I consider, without hyperbole, the perfect game.

The perfect game.

That’s a lot to live up to, especially for a game that started as rocky as this game did.

It was a two-player match between me and wife Jessica.

The first move went to me.

But I didn’t have much to work, letter-wise.

I settled on “faux,” happy to have it.

Jessica parried that with “sand,” also four tiles.

From this tight little cross of letters we’d formed as our game’s focal point — and scanning the challenging choice of letters that random selection had fated me with — I was pessimistic about the game ahead.

Then something started to happen.

Jessica, while I struggled to construct words like “wow” and “in,” was laying down “pitcher,” “bolted” and “tighten,” opening up new avenues of play and advancing her score.

We’re pretty competitive.

The game took off and by the end — after we’d laid down the last of the tiles — I was satisfied.

The board, for starters, showcased a widespread patter spreading the entire span of the playing board, making full use of available space, while maximizing points.

The words we’d played were all everyday, normal words. No dictionaries were consulted, or harmed. No “utile” filled any gaps on our board.

We’d played every letter, too, with no pesky unplayable Q or V left over, no points to subtract.

And, most important, we’d had a lot of fun. Truth is, Scrabble for me is still mostly a beach tradition and Jessica and I hadn’t played since our last trip there, way back. It felt good to dust off our game and shake up our Scrabble routine.

There remained just one thing left to determine: who won.

Scorekeeper Jessica, who’d tallied in increments as we played, added up the final block of points.

“Guess what?” she said, locking eyes with mine from across the table, her expression impenetrable.

She’d trailed me though some stretches, and vice versa, so I had no clue.

“It was a tie,” she said, holding up the score pad to show me the totals (268-R to 268-J) circled at the bottom.

I wasn’t sure how she would react — like I said, we’re pretty competitive — but I knew how I felt.

It was — and if it sounds self-serving or sappy, so be it — the perfect ending of the perfect game.

No winner. No loser.

“That’s a draw,” some might say; but, like “utile,” draw in this case seems not quite the right word.

Like its synonyms — “stalemate” and “dead heat” — the notion of a draw, to me, is negative; neutral, at best, but too pessimistic-sounding for my current tastes.

I call it this: a mutual win.

If one win is awesome, two wins — to coin a word — is awesomer.

In a two-player match, in fact, it doesn’t get any better than that. To coin another word, it’s the awesomest. And isn’t that the most utile definition of perfect there is?

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