`S' Is for S-W-E-E-T-H-E-A-R-T-S

Our Scrabble tournaments began in courtship, as an offshoot of that heady, self-conscious ploy couples use in their search for commonality. Those early games, played on a flimsy, dogeared Scrabble board, were kindled by intrigue and flirtation.

That was 17 years ago. The beginning of our relationship can be traced back to a ``J'' (for Jim) and an ``S'' (for Sally) scribbled at the top of the page, with our two identities separated by a bold vertical line running the length of the page. The question most likely in our minds: ``Will this person play fairly and be a good sport, or be a cheat, bully, and a poor loser?''

Couples-to-be often settle on a competitive activity, such as tennis or golf, to guide them through the getting-to-know-you and falling-in-love stages. Scrabble - albeit a more sedentary choice -

was a suitable contest for us. Our attraction to Scrabble also confirmed that it's OK to relax. Life doesn't need to spin along at breakneck speed.

Plus, it was good, clean, inexpensive fun. We could work all day and play Scrabble for hours at night. One game led to another. Neither of us were wont to bypass a challenge.

As Scrabble devotees, we toted the game along on our honeymoon to New Mexico. Did we fear breaking the spell? Our ``J'' and ``S'' tournaments have been fought on kitchen tables in the three states we've lived in - Colorado, Tennessee, and California; four, if the week in New Mexico counts.

THE truth be told: We weren't great Scrabble players then, and frankly our game hasn't improved. We're not Scrabble champs; we're Scrabble chumps. An authentic Scrabble dictionary would confuse us, and an official Scrabble tournament would intimidate us. Our scores typically rank us only a little better than average. Proof of our mediocre Scrabble mentality is our agreement to play without the ``k'' tile, misplaced long ago. Never mind that we've missed out on words such as ``luck,'' ``king,'' ``milk,'' or ``knave.''

Sessions vary. Some consist of the best of three games, or the best of six, or until one player falls far enough behind to beg for a fresh start.

Play has spanned blizzards, rainstorms, two pregnancies, and exasperating hours waiting for our teenagers to return home. We clear off the kitchen table, lug out the tattered game, and play when we can't afford pricey movie tickets; between reading good books; or whenever the Scrabble muse enfolds us.

Scrabble mirrors our lives, providing a subtle family energy that counteracts chaos. The game's repetitiveness brings order to disorder, adding a pleasing mundane rhythm to our lives, marked as they are by complicated jobs, teenagers, yard- work, and all the rest.

Our claim to Scrabble fame is nil. When a gutsy play occurs, one of us - usually the one who's made the play - may say, ``This is one for the Scrabble Hall of Fame. I'm writing this down.'' We never do. Recording those spectacular moments would add a serious dimension to our play; we might begin to ridicule blockbuster moves such as ``wood,'' ``if,'' ``quite,'' ``snail,'' or ``blind.''

We've even managed to quell the threat of Scrabble-gate. One evening I was actually paying attention to the score in a particularly close game. I glanced at the scorecard (always kept by ``J'') to check how far behind I was. My score didn't add up. I slyly double-checked my opponent's addition upside down from across the table and discovered that he had credited me with 10 fewer points than I had earned.

``Scrabble-gate,'' I hissed. ``J,'' chagrined and apologetic, corrected the error, then suggested I verify his math on previous games. A glance at the stack of scorecards we've kept over the years convinced me that his mistake was unintentional.

Hardly fierce competitors, our games are as animated as wind chimes on a calm day. As friendly foes, we can make it through an entire game with mumbles and gestures signaling, ``It's your turn to play,'' ``What a bad move,'' and ``Why do you always end up with the `q,' `x,' `z,' and `j' ?''

However, Scrabble fervor can encourage ``Scrabble-babble.'' Stimulating, enlightened exchanges go like this: ``Your turn or mine,'' ``Anytime, now,'' and ``Now you've done it - you've messed up the entire board!'' This snickering banter also serves as a lowdown tactic to stall the game or embarrass the player who's caught daydreaming.

ONE of the most fiery retorts is: ``Good game. You won; I lost. So what? I was preoccupied and didn't give it my best effort!'' This cheesy claim by one player that a particular game has received less than full attention sums up what Scrabble means to us. We don't give it our best effort; in fact, we enjoy the mindless quality we bring to the game.

Who's leading in this ruthless Scrabble competition, ``J'' or ``S?'' It doesn't matter. All that really matters is that couples savor tradition. Granted, most prefer activities that are far more stirring than a slow-paced, tired old game of Scrabble. No apologies here, though. I appreciate this familiar word-game diversion.

Seasons come and go. One Scrabble tournament ends; another begins. Once an excuse to parlay more hours together, it's now a ritual. For us, Scrabble is sharing, a lullaby, and another way to use the pronouns ``we,'' ``us,'' and ``our.''

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