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There he is, clad in his “World’s Biggest Fish Fry” baseball cap, neon orange diabetic footsoles, and multicolored top hat à la Dr. Seuss. Four hundred and twenty pounds, bound to his high-backed leather armchair (driven with tender care all the way from humble Cincinnati), and a powerful, scruffy beard eclipsing his oxygen plug: this is Frank Lee, my final opponent at the National Scrabble Championship.
As the result of my transformation from mild-mannered schoolboy to board game connoisseur and Scrabble junkie, I had been feverishly studying until this very moment: the climax of my amateur Scrabble career.
The score is 386 to 326, my favor, and there is only one tile left in the bag. The board has practically become a New York Times Crossword, and not a meager Tuesday or Thursday; this is a full-fledged Sunday. Words like “IXIA” (defined as an African plant with sword-shaped leaves), “LEKU” (a monetary unit of Albania) and “UNAI” (a two-toed sloth) permeate our board; are we truly playing what some Merriam or Webster considered English words?
As I gaze down at my score sheet, attempting to card-count the tiles and ascertain which ones are left, Frank warily examines his side of the chess clock, which reads 1:37, and he nervously plays a W to form “EWE” and “WE” for twenty points. The bag is now empty, and this great, grey grizzly bear of a man now has one minute and thirty seven seconds left, out of his original 25 minutes, in order to gain forty more points.
By the time Frank apprehensively announces “twenty” as his score, I had figured out that the remaining tiles were I, O, N, P, R, S, and another W, an intimidating rack. To block the final Triple Word Score, I play the perfectly pleasant word “URIC,” meaning derived from urine. I announce my meager six-point gain and wait with trepidation for Frank to make his final move. Something is out of place.
After I play my word, Frank’s eyes grow large under his Technicolor bifocals. The clock is ticking down, 37, 36, 35, and soon Frank utters a mammoth sigh and places his S next to the U of “URIC,” forming “US.” I smile; Frank is almost definitely going to play “OWNS” or “WINOS” and I will handily win the game. But then, I see it: an E. I look frantically down at the results of my tile counting again and again, but still do not see an E in what I had calculated. Soon, all of his letters come onto the board at once, forming “ORPINES,” a plant with purple flowers also called a ‘live-forever.’ It dawns on me that I had miscounted the tiles and forgotten to cross off Frank’s W from “EWE.”
My jaw drops almost to table level. Frank had used all of his letters at once, thereby getting a 50-point bonus to his score. He wins the game 425-392. The perfect irony of the situation… the perfect irony of the word itself! I had arrogantly thought that I was the one who would be celebrating, but humble Frank Lee is the one who remains standing (sitting) with the single word that would ‘live forever’ in my mind.
My head hits the table, one of the ubiquitous pieces of folding plastic that dominate the room. How could I be so idiotic? How could I make such a critical mistake? How, how how? But as I sit, silently berating myself to no end, Frank looks up at me and says, “I take no pleasure in that win Christopher.”
I slowly lift my head to see his weathered blue eyes looking genuinely back at mine. He pauses, and it seems to me as though the whole room had gone silent. He looks at me more sincerely than ever before, an impenetrable, wholehearted gaze into my eyes. “I hope you can leave knowing that you’ve come away from this tournament with a better prize than anyone could have given you Christopher, because you deserve to be happy, and you deserve to be happy with what you’ve become.”
The words, the points, and the money all disappear. I look around the room and realize that I am not surrounded by diehard competitors who play this odd game for fame and glory, but by people just like me who had wanted to join this eccentric subculture, who had wanted to finally be accepted in their lives. For us, Scrabble is not about satisfying a vain addiction to competition, but rather about the heartfelt players like Frank Lee who have come together to support one another and their love for the game, foibles and all. I am not playing this game for dollars and cents; I am playing it for a sense of family.
Across the table is not just a man with a striped hat, an oxygen tank, and orange diabetic footsoles; this is a man who had been taken under the wing of our minuscule clique of players, and accepted just the way he is: as a lover of language and a man of honor. Good game, Frank.
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