Scrabble and The Rules

Scrabble Board


12 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. 15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”

– John 14

Yes, I am going to talk about Scrabble right now. For all intents and purposes, it’s a “board game”, but there’s been plenty of console and PC iterations, so I believe one might grant me a pass on this particular note.

So yes, the Scrabble. When you’re in the middle of the ocean on a cruise ship, you can’t just sit around all day. Surely, you could eat the endless amount of  food provided onboard; you could work out at the gym to lose the pounds or stave off the excesses to which you indulged the night before. Perhaps you’ll wander into the library onboard, or take a class (on who knows what). Still, these things eventually bore you out of your mind. You’ve got to do something other than read books on Christian apologetics and/or novels for hours upon hours. Board games it is!

My family plays Scrabble for a number of good reasons. First, our Monopoly sessions take the form of cutthroat capitalist pigs continually trying to screw each other over for hours upon hours. If the lines between reality and the game aren’t blurred, it certainly forces a mindset of constant offense and defense to ensure your victory over everyone else. As far as that goes, no one here calls it “relaxing” – more like a smaller version of the real thing! Hence, no cruise Monopoly. Plus, my mother’s natural instincts mean she skews the game board by giving somebody an essential property for less than its full worth, effectively meaning she makes the game into a whirlwind of stressful chaos akin to a stock market crash. Again, just like real life!

Scrabble, on the other hand, doesn’t have these issues. You might be competing, but you’re simply placing words onto a board with clear, definitive rules. Words need to fit within the Scrabble dictionary – usually, it’s common modern English word (although seriously, how do things like “ya” and “yo” become legitimate?). First word on the board gets a double word score by default. You only get seven letters at any one time unless they’ve been used, so you must make words based on the completely unpredictable trends of your friends/enemies. Each subsequent word/letter bonus on the board can only be used once; at the same time that this forces you to play big words, it also gives you an incentive to block larger word plays by placing your word just right to block others. Still, you can’t dawdle. Once the letters in the bag dry up like a riverbed, you’ve got no choice but to play as many letters as possible before somebody runs out of letters. If they use them all, they get a point bonus equivalent to all the unplayed letters, and that could very well become a mix of Qs, Zs, and Js (all worth eight points or more by themselves), probably winning them the game.

The random elements, in a way, decide the game. If someone should, say, get a word like “Cowling” on the first turn, that uses all seven words and nets a fifty point bonus for using every word. Sometimes, you may find yourself without anything to play, not because you’re bad at Scrabble, but simply because your vocabulary does not retain the depth or breadth you thought it did. Even so, a person who doesn’t know every possible point combination could still win due to their opponent’s incompetence. In a weird way, knowing the rules creates a self-sustaining system that rewards the beginner as well as punishing the expert in turn.

Now, what’s interesting, then, is that I haven’t actually played the game by these rules, like, ever. And definitely not by my own initiative!

My grandmother on my mother’s side was a big fan of Scrabble. Apparently, her rules did not follow the Official Scrabble Rulebook TM (copyright of Hasbro Entertainment). In her version of the game, my version, word scores could be used multiple times (or an infinite amount of times, given the word placed on them). Slapping an S on a big word like “Cowling” could net you a big point bonus for no other reason than having an S. No point bonuses derive from getting rid of your letters (other than ending the game). Thus, many of the game end up in block fests where someone places a dumb, stupid word (like, maybe, “it”) in a place that makes a word score bonus impossible for anyone. Certainly, it encourages a more defensive mindset overall. If you place a big word somewhere, prepare to have everyone on the board take advantage of it immediately and screw you over.

Honestly, I think I prefer the original rules. There’s a deftness to them, a balance that forces careful play without rewarding turtling and defense too greatly. In the rules I learned up until a few weeks ago, you needed to keep the cards close to your chest and every player remained perpetually risk-averse, unable to play freely when the time came. The board became truncated, underused. More like Monopoly, to put it bluntly! It made us into different creatures, one who weren’t so much interested in playing a game as defeating opponents. This might work fine in an online game, but this is family, not war! Seeing people face to face changes the game in many ways. Being an actual human being remains much more important than simply crushing your foes.

And, in a way, this comes only by playing Scrabble by the original rules and not some bizarre, made-up variant. I have been playing the game wrong for twenty-five years (well, approximately) based on assumption and misinformation. Nobody bothered to actually read the rules, and that’s a rather disheartening idea.

Of course, the same thing’s unbelievably true about Christianity, more or less. Ever wonder why we have changed so much in the past few decades to what I’d call a more “tolerant” and “liberal” Church? Well, there you go. The modern mind, in effect, isn’t so interested in rules, in regulations, in the right way to do things; they’d rather do it in the way that makes them feel good, or give them an answer without a consistency to that explanation. Perhaps they want to accept their gay friends and accept them so as not to offend. Maybe they see the Bible or the Church (if you’re Catholic, let’s say) as an outmoded or outdated way of thought that came from antiquity; that which is old, somehow, becomes bad by default. So it was with the faulty Scrabble rules that, at best, let my grandmother win at Scrabble, more often than not. My mother passed it down to me, and so on. The same cycle goes for education of the youth, and for the perception of everything else. They are what we would, in older times, call “heresies” – incorrect beliefs mixed with a little of novelty. That novelty, in effect, makes the heresy so effective because it contains a little of the truth.

Or, as Hilaire Belloc says in his Catholic apologetics classic The Great Heresies:

Heresy means, then, the warping of a system by “Exception”: by “Picking out” one part of the structure and implies that the scheme is marred by taking away one part of it, denying one part of it, and either leaving the void unfilled or filling it with some new affirmation. For instance, the nineteenth century completed a scheme of textual criticism for establishing the date of an ancient document. One of the principles in this scheme is this, that any statement of the marvellous is necessarily false. “When you find in any document a marvel, youched for by the supposed author of that document, you have a right to conclude” (say the textual critics of the nineteenth century, all talking like one man) “that the document was not contemporary, was not of the date which it is claimed to be.” There comes along a new and original critic who says, “I don’t agree. I think that marvels happen and I also think that people tell lies.” A man thus butting in is a heretic in relation to that particular orthodox system. Once you grant this exception a number of secure negatives become insecure.

And it is that such a thing happens today. Give a inch and you may be giving up the mile – albeit that miles will be slow going, assuredly it will progress. I am talking about modern Protestantism, mostly; the Catholic Church’s overbearing authority has, for the most part, made this irrelevant.

To say it a little more harshly: the modern Christianity becomes a bastard child that everyone wants because it is the most attractive – but it may not be the best thing for the psyche. It is a faith unwilling to go against the tide, merely to accept it and move along with its winding path towards obsolescence. That doesn’t mean it is right. It does not mean we are playing by the right rules. What I like isn’t what is correct. My subjective experience does not edit or somehow invalidate objective truth.

My obedience to commands of God, whether or not I feel particular endearment to them, is irrelevant. If I truly believe them as the absolute and unvarnished truth, why bother messing around with the jot and the tittle? We need to be willing to read the rules. There is something queer (I get the right to use outdated verbiage; sue me) about not following the rules as written; it’s as if I know better, that I can somehow improve them. Yet, nixing one part for my feelings isn’t going to help out.

Guess I’m not so much an intellectual after all, just a follower of a Good Shepherd whose assiduous attention knows what’s better for me than I could ever know for myself.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.