You know you’re in for a rough night when a guy who spends his days talking to himself and chasing after an imaginary dog lays down ROTGUTS as his first play against you in a Scrabble tournament. That’s where I found myself two weeks ago, when my local bar decided its version of March Madness would consist of 32 regulars trying to put words like ANAL on a Scrabble board.
My first round match was against Donavan, the guy who plays “Joe” on the Nickelodeon show Blue’s Clues, and he was one of the bracket’s few unknowns. Sardonic and possessing a dry wit, he was obviously a smart enough guy. But still, he was an actor—he could read lines from a teleprompter, but could he play? The unfortunate answer, I found out as he slowly laid down the final S tile of his stunning opener, was indeed he could.
Rotguts? Didn’t it have a dash? I challenged, but it counted: he had scored a bingo—a bonus 50 points for using all seven of his tiles—and I had lost my turn. Before long I was down by 77 points, and I hadn’t played a single tile. This was not going to be pleasant.
But I wasn’t out yet. We traded high scoring plays for five rounds. It felt, strangely, like a tightly contested match at Wimbeldon. Like bookish twins to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, we pushed each other back and forth across a court, forcing one dramatic swing after the other. I chipped away at his lead, and it took me five rounds to get my own bingo. Soon we were nearly even.
When they got a sense of what was going on, the rest of the bar began to leave us alone, as if we were two pitchers going for no-hitters. In round 10, down by 24, I built his SKA into SKAT and TUPS for a triple-word-score 39. He challenged, and it turned out I was wrong: SKAT wasn’t what be-boppers sang. But it was an obscure card game, and Donavan lost a turn. Then I got a lucky pull: what at first seemed like rack full of vowels turned into AERIALS for a bingo 76.
Down for the first time in the game, Donavan needed to do something desperate. And that’s exactly what he did, playing QADS from a corner triple-word for a possible 42 points.
I knew QAT was a word, but QADS? I had my doubts, but if I challenged and lost he’d take the lead on my lost turn. If I didn’t challenge, we’d be dead even. Our game had come down to this one decision.
We both thought it would be a good time for a break, stepping out into the street for some air. Outside, we uttered our first conversational words in nearly two hours. As we talked, it became clear that the game had become something different. The inspired wordplay of the other was pushing each of us to play at a higher level than we ever had before. More, we admired each other’s best plays, and we realized that, though the game wasn’t any kind of “fun,” it was exhilarating to be a part of it.
I did challenge QADS, and it was no good. At that point, though, it didn’t matter: we both knew we were involved in something special, and that it was greater than whether he or I won. I know I’m talking about Scrabble, here, but it’s true: the sublimity of sport can come in unexpected places. On your local hoops court, or your roto baseball league. Anywhere, indeed, where competition becomes more than the sum of the competitors.
At the end of the match I won, barely, with 405 points—a personal best. We were both exhausted. We were woozy, almost punch-drunk, and, like two fighters at a post-fight press conference, we spent another half hour breaking down the game with the rest of the bar.
Everyone agreed the game should have been the final. We also decided the world should be warned: if your toddler, after an afternoon spent watching PBS, starts using the word “Qads” as an exclamation, challenge them.