Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Game On!

Tucked away in the corner of Deck 9 on Oceania’s “Regatta” is a small, but bright, well-appointed Card Room with mahogany tables and cushioned chairs. It attracts those who, like me, enjoy games. When I find myself in that room, its occupants fascinate me. There are elderly women baiting and berating each other as if bantering was the real game being played rather than Mah Jong. Then there are the two male Cribbage players in their 70s who seem to revel in catching each other making “mistakes” in pegging their points. Of course, there are the usual card-playing characters frowning at their hands and bemoaning their lack of a particular suit or the absence of face cards. And while I can enjoy almost any game, I am there to play my favorite; Scrabble.

Now if there were ever a subculture of game-lovers, Scrabble players would perhaps be the standouts. There are no stereotypical characteristics or clothing that identify Scrabble players. They are not like the tweed-jacketed Chess players, fashion-conscious Bridge players or the lone wolf jigsaw puzzlers. Those who enjoy the word game originally called “Lexicon” can only be distinguished by the unobservable; the love of words. There is an odd ability to see the letters in words interact, expand and intertwine in crossword fashion. But for me there is more to this pastime, there is a fascination with vocabulary, the world of words, the more obscure the better.

Isn’t life a little like the game of Scrabble? Each of us gets seven letters at a time and must choose how to play them. It is pointless, literally as well as figuratively, to complain about the letters on our tray. Sometimes the play we choose is small and gains little. But it may lay the base for the seven-letter ‘homerun’ word that earns the 50-point bonus. We cannot always see the possibilities that lay ahead in the game. The reality is that we play our tiles in connection with others. They can both block and facilitate our play by how they take their turn. In the end we define winning as the person who gets the most points. But what if it were different?

Imagine if we could all cooperate by showing each other the letters in our tray, disclosing our weaknesses and strengths without fear that we would be taken advantage of. What if the object of the game was to ensure that all players had the opportunity to make the most of their tiles? What if the key strategy was cooperation instead of competition? Imagine the dialogue that we could enjoy instead of the long moments of waiting for someone else to complete his or her turn. What if we redefined winning as the highest cumulative score?

It seems to me that life is better played as a “team sport". It could be more like the trivia competition we have played on Deck 5 each afternoon in the Regent Lounge. Despite our self-demeaning team name, “Les Miserables’, we have succeeded by each participant serving an important and unique purpose. As in life, with its relational intricacies, each person we meet has a potential contribution to make. Sometimes the role is to muse out loud, risk suggestions that sound silly when spoken or affirm fellow team members. But it seems our culture is built around the concept of "winners" and "losers", with one group automatically defining the other. Someone is right and another is wrong. And I, for one, can so easily buy into that. I often fail to recognize the value of the humility and courage required by those who are not always "winners". I suspect that I am not alone in secretly dreading being labeled a "loser" in this upside down game of life.

As getting older looms, along with my Parkinson’s disease, it may become easier to retreat from the world of competition rather than face defeat. It is likely to be much harder to keep up with the “winners’. The words I play in Scrabble may have fewer points and be less poignant, and the any contribution I can make to a trivia team may well decline. How can I approach this pending reality with a positive spirit?

Scrabble has taught me several useful life strategies. The first is that winning can easily become a narcotic that blocks the joy of just playing. The need for the next “fix” makes it difficult to be either a gracious winner or loser. Second, we can choose to be in a constant learning mode, offsetting to some degree the deterioration of age or disease. Third, and perhaps most important, I must remember that it is the relationships with my fellow game players that count. To fail to learn these lessons is to leave us playing a lonely and sad game of Solitaire. That is NOT the future I want. So let’s just play. Game on!


  1. Again...great writing...I love your use of the words. A thought: can't much of what you say be accomplished by learning to compete "with" rather than "against" another person or team? This distinction has always been a helpful one for me...even at crazy game night at Mount Hermon! Iron sharpening iron...
    Are you currently on the cruise? Where are you and what is your destination?

  2. I love word games latest way to enjoy scrabble is through the world of Apple :) if you have an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, you can play Words With Friends online taking your turn as time allows. Some games take days, but it's a fun way to play. I love 'battling it out' with my sister...the game also has a text message portion so you can chat as you play. Almost as good as playing in person!

  3. I love this metaphor. So often I have wished that we could just play, not really caring who won or who lost. I know so many people who expend an enormous amount of energy trying to "win" in life, and all the while, they're missing the fun. That being said,I think we all fall into that pattern now and then; I know I do. The trick is to ask yourself "am I having fun here? If not, then why am I playing?"

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. My kids play scrabble on their cellphones and neither have an iphone, so you might check that on your phone. I love to compete and I love winning, but I play pickleball 3 times a week and we keep each game's score but rotate partners after every game and no one remembers who won which game at the end of the 3 hours of playing, we are just getting exercise and having fun. I hope you keep competing in life, in writing, and in living. You are an inspiration to all your readers.