26 February, 2008

With Apologies to Hasbro

The prison canteen doesn't sell SCRABBLE sets, so we made our own. Tiles, stenciled and meticulously cut, came from the backing of a forty-two-cent writing tablet. A grid, drawn on a legal-sized file folder, glued to the reverse of a checkers board and shaded with colored pencils became a passable simulacrum of Hasbro's. The process took days — me lettering and coloring, my cellmate, Jamie, gluing and cutting. The thought crossed our minds, but we stopped short of coating the tiles with floor wax to make them smoother and appealingly shiny.

We got a copy of The Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary, Third Edition, to settle challenges. The Official Word List, that SCRABBLE aficionado's bible, was beyond our ability to acquire, owing to the prison's restrictive mail policies. We made lists for ourselves of every playable two-, three-, and four-letter word. We did drills. We anagrammed relentlessly, often unconsciously. We read about fanatical tournament players in the compelling Stefan Fatsis book Word Freak, and were less mortified than we should have been to identify so much with its insane subjects. We were, it's safe to say, obsessed.

For two years a nonsmoker, I started again. Locked down in a nine-by-twelve space for twenty-one hours a day, wits and creativity will take you only so far before options seem to run dry, before vice starts looking like a virtue. Besides that, our two-man marathon tournaments demanded we have something to do with our hands as we played into the gray hours of dawn. Filterless, hand-rolled cigarettes of cheap tobacco stained our fingers. Freeze-dried coffee bittered our palates. Once in a while we would venture to ingest solids, too, usually in the form of breakfast — served here at 5:30 in the morning.

Even with the best books and a voracious appetite for literature, one can only read so many hours a day. SCRABBLE left us with none of the numb-headed guilt of watching television; though, most nights our TVs stayed on, muted. They were for visual stimulus while formatting plays, and, aside from occasionally distracting us with the antics of an impossibly adorable kitten on The Planet's Funniest Animals, they served well for that purpose. For aural input we had our many eclectic mix tapes, recorded with care from a fantastic nearby independent radio station.

We became word-crunching, chain-smoking, overcaffeinated, kitten-loving machines.

As involved as we were, it feels like a personal failing that I'm now unable to cite specific plays. Neither can I retrieve from memory exact scores. True SCRABBLE enthusiasts remember these things as second nature. Jamie did once challenge a bingo (a single play that uses all seven of a player's tiles) of mine that put an S at the end of his BLOODLETTING and crossed a Triple Word Score premium square. Why that single instance stands out in my mind has more to with his disgusted reaction to losing the challenge (and his next turn) than with any cleverness of the180-plus-point play itself.

Jamie went home, in December of 2003, on probation. We've kept in touch. To this day he is still the best cellmate I've had. After him came a string of individuals I'll charitably describe as less than literate. There was simply no one able or willing to play. My handmade SCRABBLE set was retired. I quit smoking almost immediately. For nearly two years, through institution-wide shakedowns and monthly cell searches alike, it sat at the bottom of my footlocker despite its contraband status as an altered item. In the end, I gave the entire bundle — board, tiles, book, everything — to old Mr. B., with whom I'd played many games in the county jail, the two of us awaiting trial. I knew he would get more enjoyment from it at that point than I. And, sure enough, the following day he let me know how funny it had been to look over the old score sheets I'd left in the box, and to see the plastic bag of checkers still sealed from the factory.

That was the spring of 2006 — two years ago, now. Too many times to have kept track, I've seen Mr. B. since then. Somehow it's never occurred to me to ask him if he still has the board, or if he's played any particularly good games on it. I'd like to think, after all, that it helped someone other than Jamie and myself pass the time, even if it was with decidedly less fanaticism.