Scrabble spells sisterly love

Celia and I have competed at various games since our shared childhood in Rochester, N.Y. We began with Monopoly; matured to our mothers' stock in trade, canasta; and finally moved on to Scrabble. Oddly, we never vied at anything outside the world of board, card, and word games. In the real world of school grades, allowances, lifestyle, and clothes – areas that could have been rife with winner-loser divisiveness between sisters – we got on famously.

But shake up the bag of letter tiles and open the familiar board with its symmetrical possibilities for double and triple scores – and watch out. This is win-loss territory for two longtime competitors, and neither of us gives an inch.

"Unform?" Celia is incredulous. "Use it in a sentence."

"The line before Celia's chemistry class began to unform when she appeared," I offer.

I find the word on page 1867 of my unabridged Webster's dictionary (1954 edition), which settles the matter even though it is not in "The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary" (fourth edition, 2005). Celia reluctantly accepts "unform," but nearly closes the score gap a few moves later with xu – the plural of a Vietnamese monetary unit I learn when I skeptically consult Webster's (not there), and then the official player's guide. (Drat, there it lurks.)

We are not world-class players, but we are both skilled and well-matched. Before this provokes a letter to the editor from Rhode Island (where Celia lives and teaches high school chemistry), let me acknowledge that she is a couple of games ahead in our present tournament. And it will be awhile before I catch up, given the 700 miles between her home and mine in Indiana.

I visited Celia last June as part of a train journey Charlie and I took. As Charlie and Celia's husband, Paul, got to know each other, she and I brought out the board and shook up the tiles. I'm not sure how many hours we devoted to Scrabble on our three-day visit; we did spend time seeing the sights along Narragansett Bay and doing other things. Suffice it to say that Charlie and Paul, neither into Scrabble the way we are, became well acquainted indeed.

Back home in Indiana, I played a desultory game or two against myself, working both sets of letters, trying to maximize word points for me and my imaginary competitor. But the exercise lacked the crucial element – Celia, brow furrowed, mercilessly plotting her next move across from me. And then a way of restoring her presence – although not her very brow – came to mind.

The proprietor of a busy copy business on the edges of the Indiana University campus – and several of his student clients – glanced at me quizzically as I spread and aligned Scrabble tiles on one of the copier screens.

"It's hard to explain," I mumbled, finally getting the pieces arranged in a square block that would be easy to cut the individual letters from. To avoid having to do this again, I made several sets and had one laminated. I then copied the board itself, half at a time.

Back home, I painstakingly cut out the 100 plasticized tiles, dropped them into an envelope marked "available letters" and shook it well. I pulled out the requisite seven letters to start the game and bent over the taped–together board.

Having written "unform" (with the "u" on the center starting square for a double-word score), I placed those six letters in a second envelope marked "used letters" and pulled six replacement letters from the first envelope to bring my count up to seven again. I then mailed the Scrabble packet to Celia.

She was enthralled with the idea, if not my first move. Her challenge and my response took a couple of weeks.

"At least I know you can't be cheating," she wrote, something neither of us would think of doing anyway. What fun would it be if I'd just started the game with "uniform" as if my seventh, as yet unused letter had been an "i"? A seven-letter word is worth an extra 50 points to boot, but that can only be relished if earned with real options and cunning.

As September rolled around, we were five or six moves into the game. I hold a satisfying lead, padded in part by placing my "j" (worth eight points) on a triple-letter square both up and down to form "taj" (it's in both dictionaries) and "joy" – which it was.

We figure we'll finish this game sometime in 2007. Speed isn't the point – we've got e-mail for that. This is all about reviving the old competition, pulling the packets from the mail, reading each other's penned notes (we are gradually filling the back of the copied game board with news and game commentary) and staying in touch better than we have in years past.

It is also most definitely about one of us triumphing in the end.

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