Schooled at Scrabble

My fellow teachers were insistent. But was it fair for me to play?

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When they ask me, I smile, and politely decline.

"No, join us," they say. "We like to play each day at lunch."

These are my fellow teachers at the high school in Mokhotlong, up in the eastern mountains of Lesotho, a tiny enclave surrounded by South Africa. Mapola teaches math; Ntheola, chemistry; Duma, civics; Mothibeli, English; Makheta and Makashane, computer science. These six friendly Basotho are trying to get me into a friendly game of Scrabble.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

"It is so important," they tell me, "to refresh the mind during lunchtime."

These are men I have known for only a short time, and they have been very kind in welcoming me to the high school. I feel it would be impolitic for me to waltz into the lunchtime men's club and dominate the Scrabble board. But they are insistent and I finally cave, not wanting to seem standoffish.

I decide on a few personal ground rules: No showoff words. Definitely no challenging anyone's words. Don't win by too much. Have fun, and be gracious in victory. I take a look at the game. The board is held together with masking tape, and the racks for the tiles are missing. Duma holds his pieces cupped in his hands. Makashane has his tiles tucked into the felts of an upside-down chalkboard eraser.

Maybe the word to describe my condition would be PRE-GLOATING, which is not an acceptable Scrabble play, since it is both hyphenated and also not a real word.

Then the game begins, and these guys start dropping words like DATUM and XYLEM. They're not just hitting the words, they're hitting double- and triple-word scores, making two and three horizontal words with every vertical one. Within minutes, I am trailing by 40 points, then 80. I am flailing, undone.

On one turn, I lay out the word TREE. Mothibeli, who is sitting next to me, helpfully notes that I can use my S to make it TREES and reach a double-word score. I am a charity case. I am a nonentity.

And then the trash talk starts. Makashane hits a triple-word score and Ntheola exclaims, "Ah, the wonders of the Lord will never cease!" Makheta lays down a bogus word, is challenged, and loses his turn. This prompts Mapola to comment: "He has been smote!"

This is trash talk done in King James English.

Now the showboating starts. Duma, who is in the lead, puts down the word MOUV. Everyone yells, grabbing for the dictionary to challenge, but Duma laughs and rearranges the letters to make OVUM. Just keeping his fellow players on their toes.

In the meantime, I am able to land the word TAN. Three points.

Mapola follows me with JINK. Forty points.

But here I am at a crossroads. JINK is clearly not a word. After staring at it for a moment, I realize that he must be thinking of JINX, which would indeed be a strong word. But K is not X any way you look at it.

Mapola and Duma are separated by just a few points, and JINK boosts Mapola into the lead. Everyone is staring at JINK, trying to decide whether to challenge it. No one wants to risk forfeiting a turn this late in the game.

I consider the situation. Yes, I had previously promised myself not to challenge anyone's words. But I am the only one in a position to truly know whether the word is legit or not.

I can tell everyone is suspicious. They are silently weighing the risk of a challenge against the possible points they have in hand. I ask myself: Is it not my moral responsibility to see a fair outcome to the game?

But I chicken out. I let JINK slide. Mapola wins, and Duma tosses his remaining tiles onto the board.

I have finished in seventh place. Out of seven. Spelled L-A-S-T.

After he returns the board and tiles to the box, Mapola, who is my supervisor at the school, puts his arm around me. "My brother," he says, "I was so curious to see if anyone would challenge my word." He is smiling his victory smile. "I was so curious."

He starts flipping through the dictionary.

"But if they challenged me – hey! – they were going to get a surprise."

He is at H, then I, then J.

"They were going to get hit."

He is paging through the J section.

"Hit so hard!"

He finds what he is looking for. It is sitting there at the top of the page, the first word in the column, in bold in the upper margin:

JINK: v. intr. to make a quick evasive turn, to dodge, to change direction abruptly.

Mapola smiles at me, then slams the dictionary shut.

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