M IS FOR WINNER
This isn’t just a story with humor, suspense, revenge, and cheating at board games. It’s also a story about a man who lost himself, and then got himself back. Boy, did he ever. That man was me.
I had reasons for becoming a competitive Scrabble player. Professionals can make decent money, if they’re good. I happen to be very good. I have a gift, a special skill. A person with my talents could choose to make a killing at casinos, by counting cards at the blackjack tables. But counting cards can get you killed. The risk of death is much lower with Scrabble.
If my story was ever made into a movie, which I realize is unlikely, there’d be a flashback sequence right here.
“1977: Near Las Vegas,” would flash across the screen. You’d see an eight-year old kid and his father (played by Benicio Del Toro) driving out of the city in a classic Chevy convertible, top down, both of us laughing, desert winds blowing fifty and hundred dollar bills from the huge pile in the back seat.
Then we’d go back a little further. “Four Years Earlier,” let’s say. Dad is showing his four-year-old how to play Concentration. It’s a memory game, remember it? Dad takes a deck of playing cards, lays them all out face down on the table. Three rows of thirteen cards, one row has fourteen. The extra card is the Joker. Next, each player takes turns. Flip one card over, then another. If the number and color matches, like three of hearts and three of diamonds, you take the pair, and get another turn. If you don’t find a pair, turn both back over, lose your turn. It’s very simple, especially for this kid. He never gives up his turn. Ever. Ace of spades, ace of clubs. Ten of diamonds, ten of hearts. In less than thirty seconds, he has 26 pairs collected, and smiling, he leaves the Joker face down.
Benicio Del Toro smiles, then makes the game more difficult. He gets a second deck of cards, takes the Joker out, then shuffles both decks thoroughly. The kid is staring, watching every movement. The Dad makes seven rows of thirteen cards, one with fourteen, all face down. Then, Dad shifts them all around, quickly and randomly, from one row to another. It takes longer for Dad to reposition the cards than it does the kid to pair them all up. In mere seconds, the Joker lays alone, face down.
The astonished father gathers and shuffles the cards thoroughly, fans them, and throws them all over the living room carpet. His son chases after them like a dog racing to fetch a tennis ball. Seconds later, the kid hands the deck back to his dad. They’re in order, two’s through aces, by suit. Dad’s astonished. The kid smiles as he pretends to pull the Joker card from behind Pop’s ear, and hands it to him, giggling.
How did I do it? I have no idea. Sometimes you don’t know how or why you know what you know. That’s as much explanation as I have for my secret talent, my gift. Dad didn’t know why I had my skills either, but he knew they could be profitable. I was a golden goose, a payday. So, he helped me to maximize the gains, taught me some interpersonal skills, some sleight of hand, a little bit of acting. Then we took our show on the road. There was money to be had in the town we called home. Las Vegas, Nevada. Here’s where we take a stroll down Memory Lane, neon on all sides of us.
I used to think my Dad was great. He never let other kids have a chance to bully me or treat me like a circus freak. Sure, I was different, but I always had the most popular, most expensive shoes. He’d drop me off at middle school in front of the bus circle in his Jag. All eyes were on the rich kid with the ninety-dollar mousse-spiked haircut and Foster Grant sunglasses. The kids stared at me as if I were an alien. I felt like one. I was thankful for the sunglasses. Dad bought me a bunch of pairs, and after a while, the teachers gave up on confiscating them.
The summer before my freshman year at Palo Verde, Dad made me join a gym and spend hours a day throwing weights around. The result was a physique nearly as overblown as my ego. Dad still worried that “the different kid” would get harassed, so he turned me into some giant conceited snob. My high school tenure was a four-year program of entitlement and self-absorption. I never was that guy who took the prettiest girl to the prom, or the homecoming queen to the ball. I was the one that those girls’ parents warned them to stay away from. Most didn’t listen. I took them to Hartland to see The Misfits, The Dead Kennedys, and The Ramones. Dad paid the way, Dad chauffeured, (naturally he bought a limousine) and Dad never said a word. He waited in parking lots all over Clark County, and took us anywhere we wanted to go after the shows. Life was good. I’ve still got the limo in storage somewhere.
Dad always did alright for the both of us, I thought. I never wanted for anything. Instead, it was excesses of everything. We’d spend a weekend blackjacking at a casino every few months, never the same one twice, and it kept the cash flowing. We were a money-making, bank-breaking team, until half of the team disappeared forever.
Life changed a lot after I moved in with Mom. She knew I was trouble waiting to happen, given my extreme upbringing from Dad. But she never gave up hope that I’d better myself. She was certain that my mind, my gift, could be refocused. Scrabble was the outlet of her choosing. She never explained the choice, but it was something I took to immediately. We played countless games of it, letters and point values permanently etched in my memory.
The film of my life would have a montage of Scrabble games at this point, win after win after win for me. Mom, (played by Nicole Kidman) would be proudly realizing that “my gift” made me nearly unbeatable. Occasionally, when I wasn’t being surly or mouthy, I’d let Mom win, and she’d pretend not to notice. While we sat, Mom would make up stories about my father, and I’d pretend to believe them. According to her, Dad was always trekking through exquisite locales, and he’d be coming back for me real soon. I never questioned why I didn’t get any postcards or letters. I knew the truth. Like I said earlier, card-counting can get you killed. I never went to back to Vegas again. I’m pretty sure that was the lesson I was supposed to learn, the last one my Dad ever taught me.
Now our movie flashes forward to “Buffalo, New York: Present Day.” Dwayne Johnson is playing me. Not because I’m huge, handsome, and charismatic, but because I like The Rock, and because it’s my story.
I’m at the North American Scrabble Championship, sitting across the table from Gerry English, the current, about to be former, champion. I’ve got a tailored Perry Ellis suit on, three-hundred-dollar shoes, cufflinks, Foster Grants. I’m overdressed, and I stand out. Like an alien. A lot of things changed after Dad left, but a lot didn’t. The part where I was a snobby, self-absorbed jerk? That part stayed the same.
There’s a beautiful woman across the room. Classy girl, I brought her with me, just in case I need a distraction. I probably shouldn’t have clued her in on that. I doubt she leaves with me, and I don’t really care. That’s what she’s told me, a lot of times. Seems I have a real problem with apathy. My streak of failed relationships that began in high school has continued throughout the years. That has a lot to do with the self-absorbed jerk part of my personality.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked my way up through the Scrabble ranks. You didn’t know there was such a thing? I didn’t either, until I dove headfirst into the pool of professionals. I never let on that I had a skill that could allow me to dominate. Instead, I was a Scrabble shark, a hustler, getting opponents to let their brainy guards down, then moving in for the kill. I’m here to slay the big game now. Gerry freaking English.
Gerry is that age where his long hair looks more ridiculous than it does hip. He’s wearing a faded tee that says “WORD NERD.” It should read “I LIVE IN MY PARENTS’ BASEMENT.” If he picks up on my scorn, he doesn’t let on. He’s soft-spoken and polite, shakes my hand, calls me “sir.” I call him Gary, hoping it annoys him, but it doesn’t seem to. He’s a humble and congenial guy. That’s fine, I’m arrogant and unkind enough for both of us, with plenty left over. Today he’ll get beat by his polar opposite.
The game is ready to begin. ESPN used to cover this event about a decade ago, then it occurred to one of the sports channel’s execs that Scrabble is not a sport, that the players aren’t exactly athletes, and there simply aren’t enough bone-crushing injuries, steroids, or million-dollar babies to attract viewers. As a result, there aren’t television cameras everywhere to cover every angle, panning in on every pore and drop of sweat. There isn’t a lot of scrutiny at all. Scrabble is known for fair play among intellectuals, and so it’s self-policed; we even keep our own scores. Even much of competitive play for pay revolves around the “honor system.” It’s the perfect setup for someone without honor. Someone such as me. I was only too eager to take advantage of the lack of cheating prevention measures.
The board and tiles at this championship are exactly like the ones in the dusty box most of you have somewhere in your closet or attic. With one difference – these tiles are smooth, not etched. The North American Scrabble Players Association, or NASPA, caught on to a method called “Braille-ing,” which Mort Riddle used a few years back to pick the valuable blank tiles, and even a few high-scoring letters out of the bag. When he was discovered, he earned a disqualification, lifetime ban, and infamy in the Scrabble community, unparalleled until today.
This year, I’ve been taking advantage of an unfortunate incident that took place several months back. It was in Quebec, during the final day of the Championship. Sickening details spared, you’re welcome – a small outbreak of Hepatitis A took several contestants out of contention. The sickness was likely spread by hand, as it often is, and NASPA decided that every player reaching into the bag of tiles wasn’t a great idea. Now, before each match is a process that probably would make for good television. Gloved workers quickly lay out 200 tiles—in eight groups of 5×5 squares—to demonstrate that all the letters are there, then place them into a large flat box, much like the box cover of the home edition. Some sort of light is used to sanitize them, and then the fun begins. The gloved hands are a blur; these workers are as fast as the very best three-card monte dealers I’ve ever put out of business. With blinding speed, they slide, rotate, and reposition every tile, in large and small groups. The process is repeated several times in just a few seconds. It’s dizzying to watch, but to me, it’s like watching an entire deck of playing cards flying across a room. When the game is ready to begin, I know the position of all one hundred ninety-six letters, and the four blank tiles. It’s a huge advantage, and it got me to this table, right now. Ten-thousand-dollar prize. This is my get-rich-gradually scheme.
Gerry English is truly a master. As reigning champion, he goes first, and he gets off to a quick start. Literally. The Q is worth 10 points, the K is 5, and it’s conveniently on Double Letter Score, so I’m down 25 points almost immediately. It’s a good move, and a bad move. I study his face to see if he realizes it. Maybe he’s hoping I don’t have the right tiles, or I don’t see the opportunity, but I do, on both counts. I hope to see disappointment on his face as I move three letters to the board. When I make QUICK into QUICKENS, with the S on Triple Word Score, the quiet crowd bursts into applause. I’m up 58 – 25. “Nice move!” Gerry says, not looking at all disappointed. I give him my best Dwayne Johnson eyebrow raise, but he remains unimpressed.
Not only that, he recovers instantly, and strikes back. Before I can even savor the moment, he boards the word VEERS. The V is on Double Letter, and it vertically intersects my S. That means he gets Triple Word Score, 36 points, and louder applause than I got. I glare at him from behind my sunglasses.
It’s obvious that Gerry English isn’t intimidated by my swagger. He doesn’t get all flustered like my previous opponents. He is world number one for a reason. He loves board games and spelling and playing Scrabble, and like his faded blue shirt says, he is a Word Nerd. I don’t even bother to try to hustle him. I abandon my usual strategy of pretending to miss high point moves, settling for lower scoring words, keeping it close, then dashing all hopes at the end of the match. I’ll need my A game for Gerry. He is in form, matching me word for word, point for point, move for move. Scrabble fans of Buffalo, we’ve got ourselves a RUMBLE (10 points)!
This is a bit like chess, but not exactly. A game of Scrabble between professionals can take less than half an hour. The tiles disappear from the box, and the board quickly fills up with 2 and 3 letter words that Gerry and I have both memorized. Each of us finesse the Triple Letter and Double Word Scores to the best possible advantage. We trade out tiles after a moment’s deliberation, like throwing out cards, and I never lose track of a single tile. It’s barely an advantage, though. Gerry just keeps drawing great letters, and he uses them brilliantly. I’d almost be impressed, if I wasn’t so obsessed with crushing him. Nobody’s getting crushed today though, the score remains close the entire game. Thanks to my gift, I keep up with Word Nerd. His fellow nerds around the room are watching intently. I doubt any of them realize there is life outside a fifteen-by-fifteen grid.
Soon there are barely any vacancies left on the board. It’s time for our closing GAMBITS (12 points.) When I put that word on the board, I have no letters left, which gives Gerry a final turn. He’s up seven points, but he’s going to lose. I know this, because I know what letters he has, and they’re as valuable to me as they are worthless to him. Each of the letters he fails to use will double in value and be added to my score. It will be enough to give me the win, once Gerry gives up. I look at him, he’s staring at his rack of letters. Staring at an A, an S, an N, two O’s, a P, and an I. He has no idea that I see those exact same letters in my head. I also see eighteen points and my imminent victory. Gerry just keeps on smiling, looking anything but defeated. He looks at his board, at his letters, back at the board, three times, four times, more. I just watch his eyes; I want to see the moment that he realizes he’s beaten. Instead, his pupils dilate, and he seems excited, probably as excited as he probably ever gets.
I realize his mistake. He’s mentally gone through all the possibilities, and he believes he has a chance to win. He’s thinking, he can possible draw an L, and then make the word SALOON. But there’s a couple problems with that. First, there isn’t an L left in the nearly empty box, they are all out on the board. Also, before he could even attempt to draw the L, the one that isn’t there, he needs to play one of his letters. And there’s nowhere left on the board for him to do that. Come on, English, I think. Roll over and die, will you?
I flash my wide shark smile and do the eyebrow thing again. It’s a pity there aren’t cameras to capture the moment. Gerry smiles back. Then he takes his S and adds it to the end of PRIOR, up in the top left corner. There’s an OOOH from the crowd, they weren’t expecting that move. Neither was I, but still, it nets him only eight points. If you’re keeping score, like I am, he now has a fifteen-point lead, but the leftover letters will earn me sixteen points, a trophy I can’t use, and ten thousand dollars that I can. Now, if he had any illusions about possibly spelling SALOON, he just used the S. All he’s managed to do is postpone his defeat. It’s like kicking a field goal in the final minute of a football game. And still being down two touchdowns. “Nice move, Gary,” I say. “Thank you, sir,” he says, matching my sarcasm with an equal amount of sincerity. Idiot. It’s over.
Only it isn’t over. Somehow, in all my attempts to be annoying, I’ve managed to overlook a possibility. Very uncharacteristic of me. The overlooking part, not the annoying. How did I miss it? There’s room, and there’s a chance to build a word crossing the R in PRIOR, now PRIORS. And I already know the word. MAROON. It will win the game for Gerry. If. If he sees it. I’m sure he does. But he also needs to choose the M from the three letters left. I know which one it is. I need to make sure he doesn’t draw that tile. I need a distraction.
On cue, a woman to the left of us screams. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. It’s perfect. I watch peripherally as Sherry (or was it Shelly?) throws her hand to her head and pretends to faint. Word nerds all around her rush to the rescue. Good girl. For the moment, she’s my favorite ex-girlfriend.
We two contestants, or combatants as I like to think of it, are the EPITOME (11 points) of concentration. I don’t turn to watch the commotion, and Gerry doesn’t move, not even a twitch. His eyes are locked on mine. Can he see them through my dark lenses? I can’t read his stare. He doesn’t follow my movement as I slowly stretch my arm to look at my shiny oversized overpriced watch. That’s perfect, because in that instant, I palm the M out of the tray, and replace it with a harmless O from my cuff. Like any accomplished cheat, I came prepared. Looking bored, I feign a yawn and swallow the M, the one that would have beaten me. As the tile goes down, I’m thankful for that pre-game sterilization process. I’m also grateful that nobody saw what I did. By the time the commotion quiets, and the people’s attention returns to us, the match is all but over. For sure this time.
I watch my victim to see if he suspects me, to see if he realizes he’s about to lose. His smile denies any knowledge of either fact. I’m having my own realization, and it’s ugly. All I really care about in this moment, all that’s ever mattered to me, is winning, by whatever means I can get away witht. My journey toward the dark side is complete. I am ready to take my prize and get out of here. I’m hungry. I haven’t had anything to eat this afternoon. Except an M.
Gerry’s smile is inviolable. Genuine, sparkling, and infuriating. With a slight shrug, he ends his moment of deliberation and picks up one final tile. It doesn’t matter at all what letter it is, I’ve removed the only one that he could use. We both stare at the wooden tile, twenty-one by eighteen millimeters. It means everything, and it means nothing.
This is the point where every movement is shown in super-slow motion. The climax of the movie of my life. Gerry English is turning the tile round and round in his fingers. His hand is shaking slightly. He looks much older than his sixty-some years. With trembling fingers, he brings the tile up to his lips, brushes it with a kiss. There’s a still shot of that image, his sad kiss goodbye to his number one status, etched on the slate of my mind. The moment everything changes.
His hand begins a slow and unsteady descent, to put his tile back in his rack and concede the game. And suddenly, I can’t even watch poor Gerry. Poor Gerry? Where did that come from? I avert my eyes, but I can’t look away from myself. I stare at the floor instead of the much better man across from me. The real winner. The better man. The deserving one. There are feelings I can’t remember ever having before bombarding me. Shame. Self-awareness. Unbelievably, guilt. It’s like a million voices hissing accusations. What a time for my conscience to come out of its decades-long coma. The barely audible clack of Gerry’s tiles as he cedes the game is the bang of a gavel finalizing my unfavorable judgement. Guilty of all charges.
Now, the coup de grace – a bonus flashback to deepen my disgrace. Mom. Sitting across from me, Scrabble board between us. She starts to speak, and I know what words will come out. “You have a gift, Son. Always use it for good.” Then I remember her voice on the phone earlier today. Asking me to visit. To please call more often. And most painfully, telling me, “Make me proud today.” I’ve completely betrayed her. Crushing condemnation threatens to shrink me down to nonexistence.
“I’m sorry.” The whisper spills out of my mouth like the tears from my eyes. I’m apologizing to Mom. To the girl I took with me today, and all the ones I took for granted. To everyone I’ve hurt and taken advantage of. To myself, for not being a better person. To Benicio Del Toro, even. And of course, I’m apologizing to Gerry. “It’s okay,” he says, in a way that tells me he knows what I’ve done to him. And yet he forgives me, the unworthy. The cold-hearted cheater who just stole from him.
I don’t want to be me. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to hear my name about to be announced as the champion. I pick a spot far away on the floor, focus on it, and I steel myself.
The normally quiet Scrabble crowd has come alive. They begin to cheer and clap, nearly managing to drown out the announcement. But I hear “…and still champion, Gerry English!”
Wait. What? This must be a mistake. I’m incredulous. I look at Gerry, who is glowing beatifically. Saint Gerry. I’m baffled. I take off my sunglasses, wipe my eyes, and look at the board. And see the word MAROON. Which is, of course, impossible. The M gurgling in my stomach proves it.
Everyone is slapping Gerry on the back and pumping his hand. He’s trying to be humble, waving all the congratulations off, pretending to be embarrassed. Pretending he won fairly. My mind replays that moment when he kissed the tile. And switched it. Of course! He beat me at my own game. Good for him! I actually mean it, I’m feeling better about myself. Gerry English isn’t the better man, he’s just the better cheater.
I stand up, genuinely awed, and congratulate Gerry. The handshake across the table isn’t enough. The chattering crowd gives us some space as I come to his side. Gerry’s a hugger, he embraces me, wants me to share in the joy of the moment. I just want him to know that I know what he’s done. Nobody else will ever know, but I do.
Or maybe I don’t. Just before Gerry turns me loose from his awkward embrace, he mumbles an apology to me.
“I’m sorry, sir,” and he really does sound sorry. His left eyebrow launches upward as he continues, “I don’t know exactly why, but you swallowed a W.”