Saturday, January 07, 2006

How to do things with words

I have two confessions to make. First, I'm addicted to Scrabble(TM). Second, I'm not particularly good at it. I think I've scored over 400 points only a couple of times, and cracking 300 still constitutes a good game for me.

Nevertheless, because I'm fascinated with the game and with words more generally, I was given a copy of Stefan Fatsis's book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players (Penguin, 2002). The book offers a thoughtful, observant look into the history of the popular board game and into the lives of key figures who make up the world of competitive Scrabble play. It also contains some interesting bits about how players and Hasbro (Scrabble's current owner) have struggled for control of the game. Players, if nothing else, have been instrumental in developing dictionaries, strategy sheets, and more, in effect adding value to a game whose trademark is coveted by, and produces significant profit for, its corporate parent.

Though the book only mentions this in passing, I'm intrigued by the fact that some of the best English-language Scrabble players in the world are individuals who barely know English. I read more about this phenomenon in an article published recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which profiled a Thai Scrabble player scheduled to compete in--and favored to win--the 2005 World Championship. Though he did not ultimately win the tournament, his success at the game raises interesting questions about the semiotic dimensions of language. In the world of Scrabble, meaning apparently is a hindrance, as Fatsis's book shows even of native English-language speakers. Those who know what words mean, or who try to play interesting, cheeky words to demonstrate their intelligence or command of language, often are among the worst competitive Scrabble players. (Yes--that's me.)

Those who succeed at Scrabble know how to do things with words, to recall J. L. Austin's memorable phrase, rather than getting bogged down in the depths of meaning and symbolicity. Scrabble is a game about words, power, space, and, yes, chance, this despite its being passed off by the uninitiated (and Hasbro) simply as a "word game." As competitive Scrabble players will tell you, theirs is a game they think ought to be on par with chess, Parcheesi, go, and other games valorized for their intellectual and philosophical dimensions. I'm beginning to agree.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

I stumbled in, so thought I'd say hi. Have you tried Quiddler? I am totally hooked. It has overtaken Scrabble as my favorite word game...