Tim Key: ‘At times I was playing Scrabble with such beauty, it became more like ballet’

A friend challenged me to a game of Scrabble. They should have known better

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The Independent Online

Last Sunday, CDG challenged me to a game of Scrabble and I texted back saying, “If you’re sure love, think you may regret it though”.

She cycled round and I made her drink coffee and fed her cakes and she set up the board and filled the bag with tiles. It was pissing it down outside and we had some pretty loud Beethoven on so it was all set up. Dramatic, but cosy. I would demolish the poor sod and she’d cycle back to wherever it is she lives and get consoled by her contemptuous housemates.

It was unbeknownst to poor CDG, you see, that Scrabble is, by and large, my thing. Ever since I was a little boy, waddling around in my family’s nest, I have got a huge kick from seeing the Scrabble board being dusted down and folded open. When I was seven, maybe eight years old, my Great Auntie Mu would pile round our house to play against me and my brother. We’d drink squash and eat Matchmakers and jiggle our tiles like happy little soldiers.

A fiendish old cat, Mu would draw weird and wonderful words out of her ageing brain and throw them down with a flourish. I remember one particular evening she put down ROBOTIC and I near enough lost my shit. Then she’d just chalk up the score in her diary and delve her frail hand into the tile bag, smirking triumphantly at her protégés.

CDG is no Great Auntie Mu of course, she doesn’t try to be. She has other things going on in her life and good luck to her. But Scrabble is a great leveller and I was interested to see what she would bring to the table. CDG’s first offering, in the end, was STAT (4) followed by a ROW (6) about whether or not it was an abbreviation and, after some POUTING (10) I allowed it. Then I built down from the A with ACIDIFY (66) and we were underway.

When I was a teenager, I became the under-14 Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire Scrabble champion. My brother had won it a couple of years previously and seeing the glamour, and all the skirt it got him, I followed suit. It was held in a community college and there was a cracking atmosphere. Old men waded round with dictionaries and tiles rattled on the floor, dropped from nervous children’s sweating hands. I won my six games and trounced the reigning champion in the final.

I told CDG nothing of this. I didn’t say a word. Made out I was a mere mortal.

Increasingly I started pulling little tricks. Writing ZO (11) and EE (2) and CDG didn’t know what had hit her. Stricken with a petite brain, she shunted her letters up and down her rack like a Russian playing an abacus, the only glimmer of hope in amongst it was the CAKE (10) we ate and one round where I exchanged my letters and forfeited a go. Aside from that it was pretty relentless stuff from me. And stylish, too. At times I was playing with such beauty it transcended the world of board games utterly and became more like ballet. But the victory, when it came, was ruthless. GEL (4). No more letters. Goodnight.

I really don’t know what letters CDG was picking out of that cloth bag – she refused to discuss it or look at me. But kudos to her: in the game’s dying embers she managed to use all of her letters and score 70 for FROGPEA, which I didn’t recognise as a word but which she accompanied with such a look that I guessed it must have existed. I respected her for getting it down, and especially on such a congested board.

As she left, she asked to see the final scores and I protected her by telling her that they had burnt while she fetched her coat. And then I thanked her for bringing Scrabble back into my life and waved her back on to her bicycle. The feeling of satisfaction the afternoon had given me, and the fond memories it dredged up, reminded me that it is always a good thing to play SCRABBLE (14). I photographed the board and packed it away.