In the new film Sometimes Always Never, the thing that drives the plot – its conflict, the characters’ search for meaning, their eventual reconciliation – is a game of Scrabble. Bill Nighy, playing a drily lugubrious retired tailor, has never reconciled with his younger son after an argument over whether “zo” is a legitimate word to play. (Any fool with SOWPODS knows that it is: Tibetan cow, innit, not that that matters.) Can Scrabble bring them back together again? Is Bill’s compulsive playing of online Scrabble on his phone a sign of his deep emotional damage?
You know what? I don’t at all see why being obsessed with Scrabble is the marker of an emotionally damaged person. It’s a very good thing to be obsessed with. And though the movie seems to suggest Scrabble might be an isolating thing – a refuge for those who can’t say what they really mean – actually it’s a superbly sociable game. I can think of at least two of my long-term friendships – one offline and one online – that started through playing Scrabble, and the Scrabble-alike game Words With Friends is reported to have notched up at least three marriages between players who had hitherto never met.
The game, true enough, can arouse strong emotions. The lows are well known: a rack consisting only of vowels or only of consonants, the agonising decision to skip a move to swap tiles only to end up with yet more vowels, the doomed hunt for somewhere to play “aioli” … But, conversely, there is really no feeling quite like playing a bingo across two triple-word scores. I got “birthday” once – some doughnut had left a spare H just dangling there on the bottom row – and I don’t think I recovered for a week. Nor, obviously, did my opponent. All human life is here, and – as a glorious book on competitive Scrabble, Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, showed – there’s drama in the Scrabble world to rival any in tennis or football; and a good deal more eccentricity.
One of the strange pleasures of most word games, though, including and especially Scrabble, is that they’re not really about words at all, or at least not in the usual way: they’re about maths, or about maths-like activities. The meanings of the words you play on a Scrabble board are completely irrelevant. Rack management (giving yourself the highest chance of a bingo with each draw by making sure that you have, as far as possible, a decent balance of vowels and consonants) is a probabilistic activity. Anagramming isn’t really a linguistic skill. And you’re mentally rearranging your vocabulary in a way that places higher value on words that contain particular rare letters; or words whose vowel‑consonant two-step will marry like a perfect dance partner with the vowels and consonants of a word already on the board. If you get it right, soon they’ll be playing spoons – just like in Strictly.
And though the possession of a wide vocabulary never hurts – once in a blue moon you’ll impress your friends, though not the ones who are good at Scrabble, by wasting a blank on “syzygy” – having the allowable two- and three-letter words memorised is far, far more useful than knowing any number of obscure seven- or eight-letter words. Your engagement with the language, such as it is, is at the level of common morphemes – the stems and inflections. The tactics of the game have to do with closing off openings for your opponent, restricting access to the multiplier tiles and so forth.
So it’s a game for people who like words – but not in the usual way. It’s a game, rather, that lets you see the innards of words, that makes you more alive to inflections, variations and unusual spellings. Like cryptic crosswords – which in an almost poetic way investigate the slant relationship of words to each other (synonymy, polysemy, homophony, words buried forwards and backwards in other words) and to the building blocks that make them up – Scrabble slices and dices the lexis in a fresh and interesting way. (Incidentally, if you’re after some further reading on crosswords, I strongly recommend Sandy Balfour’s magical Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose.) Think, too, of the wonderful Boggle, which really is a game for all the family, and which allows you to pick dozens of words out of something as simple as a random 4x4 grid of letters.
All word games are at once about words, and not about words at all. They are about, as Westlife might have it, “More than words”. Which is what Sometimes Always Never, in its quiet and immaculately styled way, is actually telling us.