Column: It can be hard-scrabble road playing by book

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Too excited to wait for his dad’s Sept. 20 birthday, Scott sped to Tell City to give him his present last night, 15 days early.

By SCOTT SAALMAN

The sixth edition of “The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary” arrived in the mail!!!

Two copies, in fact.

One for me; one for dad. He’s my Scrabble sparring partner. We’ve been beating up each other in the Scrabble ring for most of this decade. Half the time I win; half the time he wins — usually, the game is decided on a final turn. We’re that tight. 

The Scrabble dictionary is our argument settler. If a word is not in the book, it is not allowed on the board. No exceptions.

I once played with a journalist who used OK during Scrabble until I challenged it. OK is OK in a newspaper, but it’s not okay to use on the board, per wisdom within the Scrabble dictionary. “It’s in the AP style book,” he argued. “Sorry,” I said, showing him the O-section on page 376 of the Scrabble dictionary’s third edition where OK would’ve appeared had it been deemed an OK Scrabble word. It was the last time we ever spoke—and this over a measly six points. Without the Scrabble dictionary, there would be endless argumentative anarchy.

It had been four years since the fifth edition was published so I was antsy for new acceptable words. I cannot think of a worse hell than watching my fingers form words on the tile rack that represent the most modern vernacular yet knowing they don’t appear in the most recent Scrabble dictionary, thus nullifying their usage. Hundreds of more words are now OK for the Scrabble board; for example, emoji, facepalm, bitcoin and listicle now have their place in the Scrabble sun. And yes—OK is now okay!

Dad’s copy will be a birthday present. He turns 74 this month. I intended it to be a surprise, but as soon as I ordered it on Amazon, I couldn’t contain my excitement.

“A new edition of the Scrabble dictionary has been published,” I told him. “I pre-ordered it for your birthday.”

“I’ll darn sure use it,” he texted. I could tell he was stoked.

Dad is a hard person to shop for. He basically doesn’t need or want much of anything—he’s the least materialistic person I know—making it tough to present him with an original present.

Hoosier Lottery scratch-offs have always been a good go-to gift. He likes those. I’ve teased him with a lot of lottery dreams over the years, though none were proven winners. He doesn’t seem to mind though. Just rubbing off that mysterious grey matter hiding the numbers and symbols on the ticket seems to be enough entertainment for him. It’s all about the possibility of winning. Other than taking mom to gamble on the boats down in Biloxi on Labor Day week and Memorial Day week and spending the other 50 weekends of the year at the casinos in Evansville, French Lick, Metropolis and Elizabeth, gambling really isn’t his thing.

I like watching him use his pocket knife to scratch at his tickets. He’s a pocket knife man and finds reasons to use it daily. He uses the knifepoint to casually clean beneath his fingernails, somehow never drawing blood. Mom disdains the grating sound the blade makes beneath his dirty nails, equating it to fingernails on chalkboard. I’ve seen him stab steak pieces at Outback and deliver the blade to his mouth for the big bite, causing me to look around the dining room, praying no one is watching my Crocodile Dundee dad.

I once bought him a hammock. He stared at it blankly.

“You can take a nap in it,” I explained. “If it was mine, I’d read a book in it.”

He flinched at both “nap” and “book” as if facing a one-two punch. A hammock is an insult to a man like dad who can’t stand to be sedentary. He has not read a book his entire adult life, which he openly admits to, as if bragging. I shamelessly enjoyed a lot of books and naps on that re-gifted hammock.

In 2015, I actually bought him a book, David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers.” Dad has always been fascinated by American ingenuity and invention (he once held a patent on his own invention, which earned him a lot of money for the casinos), so I fooled myself into thinking he and I could have our own little book club, discuss chapters, perhaps replace “Dick and Jane” as the last book he had ever read. The book about the history of flight crashed and burned after only a few pages. I learned my lesson.

True, the Scrabble dictionary is, in essence, a book. But it’s not really a book. It’s like calling The Bible a book. The Scrabble dictionary is our bible. Scrabble is our shared religion. Dad has feverishly flipped through the pages of his personal fifth edition enough times during our matches over the past four years to qualify as having read several novels. Scrabble is his only allowable sedentary act.

I’m excited to soon play with him while in possession of our new dictionaries. There will be a lot of silence between us. A lot of staring at tiles. A lot of desperate searching within the sacred book. Some of our turns will flow slower than molasses. The kitchen clock ticks will be deafening. The Scrabble dictionary is the one book thru which we bond. This is our father-son story. And we’re OK with that.




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