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  1. Culture
26 May 2011

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

By Mark Watson

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

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