Scrabblers U-N-I-T-E-D

A Perkins librarian and her neurologist father-in-law tile their way to an enduring bond.

This might be hard for some people to hear, but English majors are terrible Scrabble players. To win in Scrabble one has to come to terms with the fact that “za,” “aji,” and “yez” are far more useful words than ones you’d know from reading Henry James. Chemists, geologists, botanists, sailors, rare coin collectors, and biblical scholars have far handier professional vocabularies for success. As do neurologists and Perkins reference librarians—or at least that’s what my father-in-law, Marvin Rozear M.D. ’66, and I like to think.

Marvin—everyone, even his children, call him Marvin—and I have been playing Scrabble every Wednesday evening for eight years. A longtime Duke neurologist, Marvin now works two days a week in a neurology clinic at the Durham VA Hospital. Driving up from his home in Wilmington on Wednesdays, he calls me as soon as he exits I-40, the signal that I am to place our take-out order, General Tso’s from Neo-China, which we share with his son Sterling, who’s my husband. Sterling swore off Scrabble after a particularly merciless loss he suffered in the early days of our matches. While there’s not a lot of talk during the game, the time before and after is filled with stories about Marvin playing bridge in Vietnam, his newest shrimp-catching contraption, or on occasion, a debate over the latest political news Marvin has picked up from a chain e-mail.

I’m not sure what compelled us to crack open the dusty Deluxe-edition set with lazy-Susan-swivel-action the summer weekend we first met, before my senior year in college. I had started dating Sterling, and we’d traveled to his parents’ house for a visit. I’d played Scrabble before, as my parents have had a nightly game going for as long as I can remember; still, I was nervous.

My first impression of Marvin was that he was a physical cross between Robert E. Lee and the Old Man and the Sea. He had a no-frills way about him, a weird humor similar to Sterling’s, and a genuine curiosity about pretty much everything. Since that first game, Marvin and I have played hundreds of times, exchanged Scrabble-related stocking stuffers, and found friendship over a game that we approach with equal zeal.

Some might say too much zeal. To keep the family peace, we’ve devised a few rules: the first being that Scrabble is a two-person game, and second, to compete against either one of us your North American Scrabble Player’s Association membership must be up-to-date. Only Mary Ann (Marvin’s wife) has the power to halt a game in progress or veto the start of a new game during family gatherings. We do have to eat.

We’ve also introduced increasingly competitive elements—the Scrabble clock, the customized Scrabble score sheets, and of course the “challenge” rule. I started reading Scrabble blogs and bought the book Everything Scrabble, where I learned that Marvin and I should commit the top ten Bingo stems to memory. Bingo stems are six-letter strings that can easily pair with a seventh letter to make a bingo (a seven-letter word that gets you a fifty-point bonus). For example, the high probability Bingo stem T-I-S-A-N-E can be paired with twenty-four letters in the alphabet to form seventy-three playable words in Scrabble. Words like TAJINES, an earthenware Moroccan cooking pot, or CINEAST, a devotee of motion pictures. 

Memorizing Bingo stems was like unlocking the doors to the Scrabble kingdom, and the exercise stoked competitive instincts I’d forgotten I had. Emboldened by our new skills, we decided to enter a Duke charity tournament. I was hooked. With Marvin’s encouragement, I decided to try my luck in the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship in Reno.

On the website I made to crowd-fund my trip, I posted a sped-up video of me and Marvin playing Scrabble to the tune of Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” Marvin’s closing line of “Boy, you are in Bingo City!” became my rallying cry. We kept our Wednesday routine in the month leading up to Reno. I also embarked on a summer of training—studying new words and competing in local tournaments as “warm-ups” for the Big Dance. The day before I left for the tournament, I got a text from Marvin:“R u up for s and c tonight? Last chance before Reno.” I’m not sure how a seventy-five-year-old technophobe learned how to text—let alone use text slang—but I guess we all evolve in small ways.

On the first day I won all seven of my games. I called Marvin to tell him that I’d been able to play the Bingo word “sledges,” which I’d challenged him on just a couple weeks before. My roll continued, and for a brief shining moment on day three I was ranked first, but the next day I lost the magic. If only I’d known “antiacne,” the hail Mary play that would have given me the playoff win.

“You can’t beat the bag,” my division referee said as I lamented the terrible tile luck I had in the playoff rounds. The next day I took home fifth place. As the twinkling casino lights faded into the horizon from my plane window, it was comforting to know that my toughest competition lay ahead—with Marvin. Ours is an exclusive club—a bracket of two—where only the whims of luck tip the balance on our evenly matched skill. And in that way, every Wednesday is both the same and different. Who will win the next game is anyone’s guess.

Rozear is a librarian for instructional services in Perkins Library. She plans to compete in the 2016 North American Scrabble Championship in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in August. Marvin is still studying Bingo stems and competed in a Durham tournament in July.

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