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SportsColumnistsJohn Jeansonne

A scramble to tip the scales at Scrabble

The new year is the perfect time to

The new year is the perfect time to try to win at Scrabble. Photo Credit: BLOOMBERG NEWS / JIN LEE

It’s a new year. I start fresh — unbeaten, untied and unscored upon. And maybe it will be like 2014, my best year since Donna and I first locked horns over a Scrabble board in the late fall of 1972. Of the 54 games we contested in 2014, I won 29. Even 2015 wasn’t bad — 16 victories in 33 games. Alas, it has been all shame and degradation since: 28 games in the win column for me, 63 for her.

I have been KOed by her triple-word, all-seven-letters-used briquet (an accepted alternative spelling of briquette): 89 points. I have been laid low by her once scoring 43 and 92 points on her last two turns to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I have had to endure her linking of foxes and crowns for a double triple-letter score of 90.

Understand that, as a professional journalist for all of my adult life — a wordsmith, theoretically — I should excel at a game like Scrabble. Even against a woman with more brains, a Phi Beta Kappa key and multiple degrees in higher education, I should be a contender. At least.

Alas, the documentation of our ongoing competition says otherwise. Currently — though I am not conceding the lifetime trophy just yet — Donna leads, 453 games to 337. With two ties. Just recently, her opening move was a 74-pointer — “bottles” — en route to her 364-233 romp. She even swept three games during a March vacation (contested on a Travel Scrabble set in Florida, where we trained for those evening showdowns with long walks and bike rides during the day).

She prevailed in 2017, 27 games to 13.

You could say that my play honors the game’s title. “Scrabble” means “to scrape, scratch, scramble, dig, claw, paw, clamber” — which I certainly do. More than Alfred Mosher Butts could have known in creating this activity in 1938, when he was an unemployed architect living in Jackson Heights, Queens.

My struggles are clear in the historic record of spousal conflict, tucked inside our 45-year-old Scrabble box. That collection of scoresheets reveals that Donna administered her most sound beating on Nov. 21, 2008, winning by 166 points (360-194), when she put up an 83 in one turn by using all seven letters for a linked bridges/loops. That was just five months after she hit her all-time game high of 384 points (to my 241), boosted by a 76-point whopper crafted by tacking nettles onto the end of grabs — and using a triple-word-score square in the process.

On Feb. 19, 1997, her best-ever single-turn total of 134 — marshaling her seven letters around a “c” for va(c)ation late in the match — turned my 93-point lead into a 41-point deficit and produced yet another demoralizing defeat.

With no disrespect, I briefly considered whether she might have been using a performance-enhancing substance. About the time of a 2013 study by British psychologists at Cardiff University, concluding that chewing gum can improve concentration in visual memory tasks, I noticed Donna often chewed gum — two sticks, sometimes — during our Scrabble bouts.

More likely, she has continued to hone her word-forming skills by playing the perfectly legal computer puzzle Bookworm (while I waste time checking sports scores).

I am under no illusions of someday approaching the 830 points scored in a 2006 Scrabble game by a carpenter named Michael Cresta, reportedly achieved in the basement of a Unitarian church in Lexington, Massachusetts, while his opponent — supermarket deli-counter worker Wayne Yorra — scored 490 to give the two a one-game record total of 1,320. Cresta also set the one-turn mark of 365 points with quixotry. (I had to look up the meaning: visionary schemes.)

Visionary, indeed. I did manage an all-time best game of 401 on March 23, 2012, when I twice emptied my rack of seven letters on single turns. But in perusing the chronology of our ongoing Scrabble odyssey, I was distressed to realize, only now, that my one-turn scoring zenith — a 110!, using all seven letters arranged around a triple-score square — in fact was a misspelled word. (Aquaint!?! Without a “c”? Got to be kidding!)

That was in 2009. If it ever comes up, with me already 116 games behind, I’m going to cite the statute of limitations. And hang on to that precious victory.

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