Scrabble is like life: you’ve got to be innit to win it

Not much doubt about the big news of the past couple of weeks: there are a dozen new words allowed in Scrabble. You can now get points for INBOX (only 15 years or so after it entered everyday vocabulary), WAGYU (upmarket steak, guaranteed to psych out your opponent, who will conclude that you can afford to eat in more expensive restaurants and are thus a more accomplished wordsmith), and - perhaps controversially - TWIGLET (as in, er, Twiglet, the wheaty snack). They've also opened the doors to VLOG (a video blog and a deeply uncomfortable word to say out loud) and QIN: a boon to anyone who's been frustratingly stuck with a Q, the queen of letters but among the most intractable. Yes, like I said, this is big news. I can't wait to play QIN, have someone challenge it and smoothly refer them to a recent news story. I might carry around a laminated copy of the Guardian story that broke the news, in anticipation of just such a challenge. There's nothing like ruining someone's day with a laminate.

Game changer

Some people, undoubtedly, are going to get annoyed when the new words come out. They'll be hot under the collar that INNIT (as in, yes, "isn't it") is suddenly a legitimate strategic play, rather than - as it should be - something you hear on the train and try to pretend didn't happen. They're the same people who complain bitterly when you win the game by playing AA or XI or JO. "Those aren't real words," they moan. "It's not a fair test of vocabulary. I put a lot of effort into saving up my letters until I could write CAMEL. You should be ashamed of yourself."

What these people fail to grasp is that Scrabble exists in its own autonomous universe. It's not obliged to be faithful to the genuine patterns of popular word usage, any more than Monopoly should be condemned for popularising the idea that you can buy Mayfair for a few hundred pounds (although its rail system, which becomes more and more profitable the more stations you annexe, eerily presages the modern age of privatisation). Scrabble is about tactics, not words. If you know the tricks, you'll get ahead; if you show too much sentimentality towards your favourite words and objects, you'll be bulldozed. In this respect it mirrors real life very well. It's not really fair that people get cheaper train tickets just because they book earlier than you; they're still taking up the same amount of space on the train. It's unjust that a reality TV show winner sells a thousand times as many records as a more gifted but obscure singer-songwriter. Nevertheless, this is the world we live in. On almost every level, it's a competition, just as evolution is a competition to see which species make it and which die out muttering about not being able to use their Zs. We can learn from Scrabble. Life is about winners and losers. Be a winner. Commit the word WAGYU to memory now. It's 24 points on a double-word. I don't need to say more than that.

If further proof were needed that modern life is even more of a cut-throat competition than it always has been, you should see the current series of Masterchef in Australia, where I've spent the past three months. Masterchef is popular enough at home, but down here it brings the populace to a standstill. Never has food been spoken about with such seriousness; never has a silver cloche been lifted, to reveal a dish of steak and kidney pie, with quite such portentous musical accompaniment.

Half baked

On the episode I watched yesterday, three contestants faced a sudden-death Baked Alaska contest. The tension at the unveiling of the dishes would not have been out of place in an operating theatre (which might be an idea for a future TV series: Britain's Got Surgeons, perhaps). The judges nibbled at the desserts as if the creator of the least impressive one would be put to death. The contestant with the worst Baked Alaska, teetering at the doors of elimination, wept and said cooking was his dream. He was reprieved and someone who hadn't cried was eliminated instead.

Fair? No - but once more, a useful lesson in the way to get ahead. Presentation is more important than product. People can complain that reality TV has made us all shallow and vacuously results-driven, but it only reflects a trend that has been in progress since cavemen first began to compete for wives, cave-space and the survival of their genes. Life is a game with winners and losers. It's no more than a glorified, feature-length version of Scrabble or Masterchef. If you don't like the rules, find a way to beat them. Innit. l

Next week: Nicholas Lezard
newstatesman.com/blogs/mark-watson

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution