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Sunday, February 06, 2005

11 Points, Drawing 5 Tiles

"For a moment, I wonder, like Roz, what my obsession is proving. Maybe nothing. Maybe more than I care to admit. With the board and tiles and word books splayed across my living room, and my regular circuit of tournaments, and leaving work early on Thursdays to get to the club on time, I have managed to reorder my life so that I can play a board game. This doesn't seem healthy, especially because I still suck. But it doesn't seem avoidable, either. I entered this world because it was a curiosity, a good story. Then it became an infatuation. I'm having trouble typing these words, but right now Scrabble is the most important thing in my life."
-- Stefan Fatsis, "Word Freak"

Flash back if you will a couple years to the early months of 2001. Winter in western Michigan is a dreary affair, with day after day of overcast skies punctuated by the more than occasional snowfall. It isn't the bitterly cold winter of the northern plains, but the freeze-and-thaw cycle, coupled with the constant cloud cover caused by the unfrozen waters of the big lake, combine to make this place a virtual hell on earth for seasonal affective disorder sufferers from November to April.

I have just moved back to my hometown to take a new job, the result of a vacancy here and a merger in the place I have come from. Oh, I could have stayed, and at a nice salary, but the time was right to make the move. When you're offered a compensation package that's a whisker more than you've been making, but is still a fair amount less than the company is paying new hires fresh out of school, that to me is a sign that you're not really wanted. So I packed up and came home.

When you move six hundred miles or so away, you leave a lot behind. In my case, I left behind an entire life. I had an ideal place to live, a good set of friends, familiar places to eat, drink or socialize, the whole routine. I moved back to a town of 12,000 or so where, almost without exception, everyone I knew in my age bracket had long since moved away. That was the routine - finish high school, go off to college, don't come back. So when I returned, having crossed 30 not long before, I knew vitrually nobody around my age other than relatives. I don't make friends easily -- never have. The people I am closest to people I've worked with, gone to school with, lived with or otherwise spent a lot of time with. For better or worse, I'm not the "damn glad to meet ya" type. Random socializing will never be something I turn to for entertainment. Add to that the fact that this is a summer town -- nothing much happens during the winter months -- and I'm not getting out much.

Into this void comes, by some unrecalled fluke, the game of Scrabble. I've played Scrabble before -- who hasn't? -- but never in a setting beyond the occasional family home game. I wish I could remember the sequence of events that led to this development, but I can't. I would speculate it was the result of some random internet surfing, but I digress. I stumble across a brand new interactive website that lets you play Scrabble against opponents from all over the world. I play a few games, get trounced, win a game or two.

I get hooked.

Scrabble becomes something to fill the endless empty hours of winter. I play in the evenings, on the weekends. I buy a copy of the Scrabble dictionary. I do a little haphazard studying, a bare minimum really, learning the two letter words and picking up some other useful plays like Q words that don't require a U.

Mostly, though, I just play.

I play, and I get better. Scrabble players are rated on a scale similar to that used for chess. Below 700 is pretty weak. 1100 to 1200 is a very good living room player. "Expert" is 1600 and above, although anything less than 1850 or so will get you chewed up and spit out by the true experts. A handful of players have ratings over 2000 and play a game that most people would not recognize. I reach a peak of just over 1500 -- enough to usually beat the good home game players, but nothing all that special. If I wanted to get better beyond this point, I would have to dedicate myself to learning a lot more words.

Not long after I started playing, I "met" a woman from the East Coast. In many ways, she was my polar opposite, despite being about the same age -- she was married, had children, lived a luxurious lifestyle thanks to her status as the spouse of an heir to a Fortune 500 company. We carried on a running chat while playing, which was in many ways far more interesting than the game itself, especially as I steadily improved while her rating slowly declined into the lower 900s. We talked about this, that and the other thing, and killed many a late evening with the game. I still played often against other competition, but she was one of the reasons I kept going back. In the course of our conversation, I learned that she was unhappy with her marriage, and that she was thinking about leaving her husband, but that it would be hard to give up the lifestyle. I think this is one of the reasons we hit it off so well -- we both played the game as an escape from real life and as a way to put off making difficult life choices. She had a vacation lined up the Carribean sometime in April of that year. We had a number of joking exchanges -- clearly not serious -- about my taking some time off and heading down to meet her.

Not long after reaching the 1500 level, my interest in the game started to slip a little. My concentration would lapse while playing, and I found myself no longer consumed with a need to sign on for a game. I still did play quite a bit, but not as often as before. Also right about this time, I had a late night game with my internet friend. We'd both had a couple drinks, and I knew she'd had a bad day on the home front. It was coming up rapidly on the date for her vacation, and she got right to the point, asking if, for real, I would come down to the Carribean. I tried to avoid the question, offered a couple weak dodges, but she was relentless. I finally made a halfhearted pledge to see what I could do in terms of getting a flight, knowing full well that I wouldn't be able to follow through even if I were inclined to do so -- too much work, too little notice. I switched off the computer in disgust and went to bed.

After that day, I pretty much quit Scrabble cold turkey.

The desire wasn't there. I don't think i've played more than a couple internet games since. I did pick up the board game with the family again about a year ago, but haven't done anything to go back online or to improve (or even maintain) my level of play. I just stopped playing. It took something as innocuous as a little white lie, but that was enough to be the proverbial last straw.

If I ever cared to study it, I'm sure I could find the same life cycle for my interest in poker. I played casually a few times for pennies and nickels in my younger days, through some fluke picked it later (playing a couple times at B&M venues after swearing off blackjack), starting watching it on TV, played a little more often, and finally got the nerve to play online about six months ago when a site offered me a free ten bucks. I watched the previous WPBT event, sweating the final table and providing a little support for the ultimate winner, Mt. Dew Virus, for that most logical of reasons - he was from Michigan. Eventually, I played in a tournament or two, got lucky in some NL cash games, and built up a few dollars. The last couple of months, I have been playing quite a bit -- accumulating several thousand hands in January -- and if you count tournament performances, I've probably improved my "rating". I haven't put in much in the way of study, and I would have to do some of that as well as improve my discipline if I'm ever going to be a decent player.

The similarity of the story about peters out here, and that's what makes me wonder -- will something come along that causes me to just quit? If so, was the WPBT event a milestone of some sort, along the lines of reaching the 1500 rating? Is there a "last straw" moment in my immediate future? I don't know. I will say that I've played less over the last few days, to the point of playing almost not at all this weekend. I suspect it might just be temporary burnout, but I have to wonder if it's something more than that when I make a stupid play in what is for me a high-buyin tournament, bust out about 20 places short of the money, and hardly react at all. Nothing. I happened to check on the Prima $100,000 guaranteed yesterday, noticed that there was about a $35,000 overlay, and responded by switching off the computer and flipping on the golf tournament. Where did the passion go, and will it be back?

Somehwere along the way, I suppose I will find out. Until then, if you'll excuse me, my download of the internet Scrabble software has just completed. See you on the tables.

P.S. -- If you haven't read Fatsis' book -- it was published about three years ago, and is available in paperback -- I certainly recommend it, even if you think competitive Scrabble is a joke.

P.P.S. -- Thanks to all for the kind comments and messages. I'm amazed at what a friendly and welcoming group real poker bloggers are.


TenMile said...

You are a healthy individual. Poker will be here when you are ready. The player will welcome you. How can they not, poker is a people game.

Brad "Otis" Willis said...

Two things:

There is no poker peak. Well, maybe there is, but I'd venture to say, you haven't reached it yet. So, keep playing. You'd be surprised at how many mental doors it will open for you.

Second, you are too damned good of a writer not to be blogging more.

Here's a personal appeal: Please keep playing. Please keep writing. You're a credit to both crafts and you shouldn't let your talent fall by the wayside.

Congrats on your victory. May your run continue longer than you expect.

April said...

I certainly can't say it better than Otis, so I won't try. But yes, keep writing, because you are wonderful. And thank you for sharing yourself with us.