Cathy Casey and her Scrabble board. Photo: Cathy Casey
Cathy Casey and her Scrabble board. Photo: Cathy Casey

Pop CultureFebruary 10, 2019

Bingeing on a triple-triple: True confessions of a Scrabble addict

Cathy Casey and her Scrabble board. Photo: Cathy Casey
Cathy Casey and her Scrabble board. Photo: Cathy Casey

She’s hidden it from her friends and her family – but she’s ready to come clean. Auckland councillor Cathy Casey is a Scrabble addict. This is her story.

After thinking long and hard about it over the summer break, I have finally decided to come clean about a very secret part of my life. In fact, you are about to learn something about me that most of my best friends don’t know.

I am a Scrabble addict.

No more Monday nights skulking under cover of darkness to the Mount Albert Scrabble Club. No more secretive weekends away, playing 16 back-to-back games with the best Scrabble players that New Zealand has to offer. I’m coming clean.

My first taste of Scrabble came at my mother’s knee at her kitchen table. As the youngest of six children, my Scrabble games offered precious, relaxed one-on-one time with my hard working mother. She won most times, of course, but I well recall a few heady games when the tiles all went my way.

The years that followed primary school were lean, heading to secondary school out of town and eventually university in the north of Scotland. When I got my first paid job as a postgraduate researcher at the University of Strathclyde, my workload was so intense that my rotating Scrabble board all but stopped turning.

It was after I came to New Zealand in the late eighties that I rediscovered my love of the game. Living in rural Wairarapa with a new baby, I began playing with my neighbours – a farmer and an antique dealer – to get out of the house. Scrabble gave me my time back for a wonderful couple of hours.

Thinking I was doing okay as a Scrabbler, I decided to join the Masterton Scrabble Club. Meeting every week, Scrabble offered me an evening’s amusing diversion from the demands of a small child with a group of half a dozen older, funny and highly intelligent women.

Joining the club also made me realise the vast difference between the fun social Scrabble I’d been playing and the serious Scrabble played competitively. I moved into the new world of rules, clocks, anagrams and seven-letter “bingo” words. I thoroughly enjoyed my nights on the tiles and worked hard to improve my skills – including memorising the 124 Scrabble approved two-letter words.

It paid off. During the year I played with the Masterton Scrabble Club I entered my first National Scrabble Championships in Wellington in 1989. I was delighted to return home with the prize for the most bingo words in “D” Grade.

New Zealand’s Nigel Richards competes in a category of the Francophone Scrabble World Championships in Louvain-La-Neuve on July 21, 2015. Nigel Richards, a 48-year-old New Zealander who was crowned the champion of Francophone Scrabble on July 20, doesn’t speak a word of French. Bushy-bearded, bespectacled Richards is already a celebrity in the English version of Scrabble, winning its world championship in 2007 and again in 2011. (JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

As my daughter grew up, I re-joined the workforce and life got busier. The years passed, the word-lists faded, my rotating Scrabble board ground to a halt and newer, more lively family board games took its place.

For the past 13 years I have shared my life with a man who does not have English as a first language and so Scrabble has not been played much at home. That was until 2016, when I had some lengthy down time to rehabilitate from two back-to-back hip replacement operations. It was the free Scrabble app that saved my mental health during those gloomier winter days.

Playing Scrabble against the computer daily, I honed my strategic skills, re-remembered my word lists and quickly progressed up the grades requiring play at the highest “expert” level. With 1300 games now under my belt, my claim to fame is that I have won 85 percent of them against the expert computer.

I still happily squeeze in at least four Scrabble games daily on the bus journeys between Mount Albert and the Town Hall.

But there was something missing. Playing a computer isn’t like playing a human. He is king of words but he isn’t devious. He doesn’t block me. He doesn’t keep good strings of letters for a rainy day. Nor does he try to play words that aren’t really words. I craved face-to face competition, like the good old days of the Masterton women sharing Scrabble war stories over a pot of tea and homemade cupcakes.

Thirty years on, I wasn’t sure that Scrabble clubs would even still exist. My first hit fortunately was the New Zealand Association of Scrabble Players (NZASP) which is a alive and well and boasts 18 affiliated clubs – including one in my very own suburb of Mount Albert. I could not believe that there was a club just down the road from my house in my local community.

The remnants of a lost Scrabble game.

For the last year, I have been attending the Mount Albert Scrabble Club every Monday night (or as many Monday nights as my busy political life allows). Only a few people know my secret. In my council diary, every Monday 7pm-10pm is blocked off for “NZASP” to keep everyone guessing.

At 7pm I arrive at the venue near Rocket Park in Mount Albert with gleaming eyes, palpitating heart, a pen and my reading glasses. For the next three hours, I play three back-to-back competitive games of Scrabble against the clock with other eager club members. We stop only for a cup of tea and a biscuit. For me, it is a total escape from the world of politics. My nirvana is to be totally immersed in a world of strange words with even stranger meanings. Win or lose, playing Scrabble is thrilling.

And just as I climbed the skills ladder way back in Masterton, my year with Mount Albert Scrabble Club has witnessed my move from “E” to “B” Grade. I have also given up three weekends to competitive Scrabble competitions, playing in the National Scrabble Championships in Howick back in June.

So why has my passion for competitive Scrabble been my best kept secret? And why disclose it now? The time is right for me to face my detractors and stand up for the rights of competitive Scrabblers everywhere.

Scrabble is a global business. It is sold in 121 countries and is available in 29 languages. That amounts to about 150 million Scrabble sets sold worldwide. Competitive Scrabble is also thriving locally and internationally, with 4,000 affiliated Scrabble clubs across the world. This year, there will be 15 tournaments across New Zealand from Whangarei in the north to Dunedin in the south.

Just as the global army of Scrabblers grows, so does the growing recognition that a game of Scrabble can do wonderful things for the brain and memory, while also promoting a sense of well-being that  lowers our chances of getting sick. So what’s not to like about Scrabble-playing for life?

For me, Scrabble will always be more than just a game. Within my green cloth bag of 100 tiles dwells the love of my mama for her youngest child; a haven from the demands of my small infant daughter; soothing relief from the pain of two hip replacements and a fun alternative reality to local body politics in Auckland.

Yep. I am a Scrabble addict. And proud of it.

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