Monday, October 15, 2007

It's Only Words ...

Back when I was a kid we used to play a lot of Scrabble. Those were the days when we had exactly one telephone for the family - a big black heavy instrument with a thick brown cable attached to it. There was no Internet, no mobile telephony, no cable TV (only one Govt. controlled channel that aired in the evenings, with content that mostly focused on the appropriate use of fertilizers). Computers were big expensive things with tapes twitching and turning every few moments in a restricted area with glass walls where it was freezing. And long-distance telecommunications really sucked.

It used to rain (not too heavily, and hardly any flooding except in really low-lying areas) and Mom used to make tea and pakodas in the afternoons. And we used to pull out the Scrabble board and play. No dictionaries were allowed in the regular course of the game - you were supposed to play words whose meaning you already knew. You could be challenged by any other player, and you had to be able to provide the meaning, and if they chose to, they could look up the dictionary to verify it (and they could look up only that word - they could not sneakily look up something else they might have been toying with). My father used to excel at making 7 letter words and sometimes he'd make as many as 3 of them in a single game. I learned a lot; my vocabulary improved and I knew the meaning of each word I played. There were times when I knew a word existed but wasn't sure what it meant, and I would refrain from playing it, for fear of being challenged.

End of flashback. Cut to circa 2007. Between my wife and I we have 4 mobiles and 3 land-lines. I am on-line most of the time - my line of work involves using mail, IM, mobile telephony and teleconferencing extensively. Recently, when I was casually surfing, using a laptop immensely more powerful than most mainframes in those years, sitting in my room in some crummy hotel somewhere in North America with really high-speed broadband access, I discovered Scrabulous - the online version of Scrabble. Since then I've played a few games and won some, lost some. I was horrifed initially, to learn that you could freely reference the dictionary. And the fact that you could make two-letter words like CH, UG, MM and ZA which, in my humble opinion, are abbreviations, not words. This game requires a killer instinct. It appears that most players spend hours (sometimes days) trying out all kinds of combinations with their tiles, for a given board configuration. There probably are tools out there to help you maximize your score for each play - I don't know. Players are happy making words sticking to other words and not opening out the board (they leave this to me I guess). Nobody cares if you make a word whose meaning nobody knows - the 'TWL' or 'SOWPODS' dictionary must allow it. Period.

My style is very different. I like to play interesting words that result in a reasonably decent score, and I don't like to spend too much time computing scores of each available option ad infinitum. If a word seems nice and I can notch up a good score, I play it. Usually this is within a few minutes after my opponent has played. And then my opponent will respond after several hours. Or a few days.

This game has killed Scrabble, according to me. The skill being tested here is your ability to quickly look up as many tile combinations as you can in the dictionary. Not your word-power. I thought I should keep up with the times and adopted the style that this game requires. I looked up the dictionary. I made those meaningless 2 letter words. I won a few games but it gave me no joy at all.

Give me a rainy afternoon with a real board, real tiles, real people, real cups of tea. And a real dictionary, to be used only when one player wants to challenge another. Some day real Scrabble lovers will beg to go back to that. Till then, let the fast and the furious megaflop generation knock themselves out with this on-line apology for a word game. Playing all the words that TWL / SOWPODS has, that don't take your heart away.