The Art of Scrabble
By Sun Tzu
Translated from Ancient Oriental Script by Ashley Pomeroy
Sun Tzu said: Today I will tell you how I broke a man. I have been playing Scrabble
recently. I increasingly find myself drawing parallels between the game of Scrabble and real life. The real life of ancient Japan
which is the time and place in which I live in.
Sun Tzu said: Earlier today, for example, I played the word SPLICER on a triple-word score. Because it used up all my letters, and because it was built upon my opponents' TIES, I scored ninety points, ninety ancient Japanese points. Not many points for a professional Scrabble player such as those over the border in ancient China, but more points than I had ever scored before. I wanted to play the word REPLICAS, and I almost did not see SPLICER because I was concentrating hard on the word REPLICAS, a word that was just out of reach because I did not have an A.
REPLICAS is a pleasing word, and I scanned the board avidly for a free A around which I could put REPLIC and S. But there was no free A. In my obsession with REPLICAS I almost missed SPLICER. Thus, Scrabble teaches us that we will move heaven and earth in pursuit of an ideal, at the expense of our worldly wellbeing. We can be distracted by those things that are distant and unattainable, such as the mountains of ancient Japan such as Mount Fuji.
Sun Tzu said: And I had scored ninety points, giving me a comfortable lead. But my opponent was not beaten yet. His next word was unimpressive, but he responded quickly, without undue hesitation. Clearly he still had some fight left in him. So my next move after that was to play another lengthy word - I cannot remember what it was, but it was six or seven letters long, although it was built on several existing letters and therefore did not score highly. But it looked impressive. It took up a lot of space. It was at that point that my opponent faltered. He changed his letters, This is the Scrabble equivalent of blinking in a game of poker or clearing one's throat whilst playing Go. I had his measure. I had crushed his will.
And thus Scrabble teaches us that it is sometimes not enough to deal a knockout punch. One must deal a subsequent blow, and one must give the impression that one can deal knockout punch after knockout punch, even if the subsequent blows are not, in fact, of knockout quality. It is enough that they seem forceful. One must convince one's opponent that, even if he marshals his will into a supreme effort of recovery, all that awaits him is blow after blow after blow. Hurt upon hurt. No silver lining. Clouds. Clouds of wasps.
But my lesson is not yet complete. My opponent, although clearly broken, played again. And I learned my third lesson. And my fourth. The bag had given me the letters Z and X at the same time. When I was a child, I dreaded the letters Z and X, and also Q, because I was intimidated by those letters, for I knew very few words that used them. I wanted to get rid of Z and X as quickly as possible. But now I am an adult I realise that they are like gold dust, just as I realise that Brussels sprouts are actually quite tasty and that it is possible to eat too much ice cream.
No, Z and X and Q are like gold ingots, game-winning trump cards made of gold. The high-scoring letters - a list that includes the often-overlooked J, and also K - are better even than the company of a woman. And I had been given Z and X, just after having scored ninety points and having broken my enemy's will. Thus, Scrabble teaches us that fortune favours the brave and the bold. Lady Luck smiles down on certain people, brave people, people such as myself.
And what did I do with Z and X? Ordinarily I would have hoarded them, until I could make VEX and OX or POX and EX or some other high-scoring combination of multiple words. But because I had such a great many points I could afford to venture a risk. I played ZEX, one of the most decadent words in the dictionary of Scrabble. It is one of the most ostentatious of words. It is a mocking word. A disrespectful word. But I disrespected my opponent twofold, for I played the Z one square to the left of the right-most triple word score! I dared him to make the word ZO; I made it clear to him that I did not care what kind of tricks he pulled out of his ass, he was my bitch and I held the whip! And as it turned out he placed the word SOD such that it intersected with the Z and E of ZEX thus forming ZO! I believe he actually scored more than I had scored with ZEX! But I had him! I had him!
If I had not been in the lead I would not have dared be so bold. When I am behind in a game I become wary, incremental and conservative. I play short words that cannot easily be extended, such as ANGRY or BURNT, or that cannot be crossed onto one of the triple word scores. I try to spoil my opponent's turn by using words such as AA or EE, or by placing V and C in conspicuous locations. No two-letter words start with V and therefore it acts like a firebreak during the zig-zag climb up the double word scores. And the only two-letter word beginning with a C is CH, which is uncommon enough to be worth the risk. When I am behind in a game of Scrabble I spend as much time trying to frustrate my opponent's moves as I do trying to find high-scoring words. Only when I am comfortably in the lead can I let my imagination soar like a butterfly on a summer's day over the paddy fields where people grow rice, or "gohan" as it is called here in Japan.
And thus Scrabble teaches us that only those who have a comfortable lead can afford to take risks and to be bold and to flower open and blossom with nectar. This is a lesson that applies to the smallest and the largest. To people, and to nations. People cannot flourish when they are crushed and losing. Kings cannot fund commercially risky works of ancient Japanese conceptual art during a recession. Nations cannot build dams or fund waterwheel energy projects when the economy is in tatters. The best toys are side-effects of plenty. A rich man sweats honey, and bees gather on his skin. But there are no bees during the winter months.
And so I won the game. It felt good. I had won nothing tangible, I had no reward except a slightly higher ratio of wins to losses. But I took pleasure from the fact that I had beaten another man, a man who was trying to beat me. He did not fail; I beat him, I defeated him. He had tried his best, but I was better than him.
ii. Ying and Yang
Sun Tzu said: Chess is afforded a great deal of respect. Chessmasters are respected and feted by society even though their talent is a useless one. In contrast, Scrabble is derided and Scrabble players are mocked. This is because Scrabble is a feminine game. It is a game that women play. Chess is a masculine game of tactics and conquest, whereas Scrabble is a feminine game of lady luck and the memorisation of words. Words are feminine. Actions are masculine. This is why so many women read books, and why so many men rage and fight.
Of course, the act of writing is a masculine act. It is an act of conquest. The conquest of time and of death, for the words of a man's deeds can live on after he had died, as all men must. Writing is how we may set down tales of great warriors and battles so that we might inspire further generations, with tales of derring-do. But reading is not a masculine act. A man does not have time to read. He is instead read to, whilst eating perhaps. Just as a man's food and clothes are prepared for him, so too are books read to him. And he performs the act of listening.
Society spurns women who act, who play sports, sports that involve grunting and which do not also involve wearing dresses, and short white skirts and tight white tops. Society spurns yachtswomen or female shot-putt ladies, it looks at them askance. Here in ancient Japan.
Sun Tzu said: I often feel dirty when I play Scrabble. I go for the easy play. I choose QI and ZO rather than FAQIR and QUETZALS, because I know QI - of course I know QI, I am Japanese - and ZO. They always win points, they help me when the chips are down. I do not try to learn long and complex words. I am baffled by a rack containing LUAIETR, I would not know what to do. Is LAITER a word? Something to do with milk?
No, I play the little words. KO and KA and QI and QIS and QAT. I feel dirty playing QIS and QAT. They are cheap and easy words and when I play them I myself am cheap; I am put in mind of cheap easy people who succumb to drink or who otherwise become consumed by their addictions. Comfort kills just as surely as misery and pain, and it a sign of moral weakness. The drunk, the junkie, they are weak people, they broadcast their failure, just as I parade my limitations when I play JO and ZOA and ZOO and ZOOS and AZO.
And Sun Tzu said: Shame is a complex matter. The general who loses with honour may be remembered favourably by history. Or he may not, he may instead be forgotten. The general who loses a war relinquishes his ability to further influence events, whether he lost with honour or with shame and disgrace. Historians of the future may laud the general's abilities and lament for what might have been, and even the most successful empire will eventually fall and become a chapter in history books that have not yet been written. It does not matter now if this or that tribal chieftain in the distant past won fairly and treated his enemies magnanimously, or whether he was a vile worm who won with subterfuge and had his enemies put down. And no-one who commands an army or a kingdom for a significant length of time is all good or all bad. The most venerated feudal lords undoubtedly committed vile acts at some point in their reign, but whether because we want to believe in goodness, or simply because the historians were threatened with disembowelling, we forget their transgressions.
Sun Tzu said: And what of the general who wins the game with cheap and easy words such as QIS and QAT and KO? He has won the game. But there have been generals in the past who have won poorly, and who have thereafter been ignored and sidelined, held under suspicion and dismissed. The samurai who brings shame on himself may choose not to perform hara-kiri, he may instead flee. But what does he gain? Japan can trace its history back for thousands of years. Why, the Zhou period which is happening now has been going on since 1027BC and will probably endure for a very long time after I am dead. Against this, a man's life is over in a moment. He is born and dies and the world carries on - but he can live after death in history books, and in the deeds of those who are inspired by the history books.
That is what separates the honourable man from the shameful man. Magnitude and fate may conspire to commit their acts to the history books, the honourable and the shameful equally. But the shameful man exists in history as a warning to others. His name may live on, but what is a name? A name is a word, and a word is a feminine thing, weak and floppy like a sardine. The honourable man lives on in the actions of those who are inspired by him.
(note to self: Japan, or China?)