Is yourt a real word? About as real as my chances of defeating a Scrabble record holder.There's no mercy in my family. Love, sure, but no mercy. At least not when it comes to competition. When I was growing up, card games and sessions of Trivial Pursuit weren't ways to pass the time but rather means to prove your worth and demonstrate dominance. Winning, as the old cliché goes, wasn't everything - it was the only thing.
My grandmother and my father were the principal practitioners of cutthroat gaming, especially when it came to Scrabble. When they weren't seated in front of a Scrabble board, they had, quite possibly, the best relationship of any mother-in-law and son-in-law in recorded history. They were great friends. But when tiles were placed in front of them and words were made, they were like two hoboes slobbering over a cheese sandwich. They would play and argue and kid each other for hours on end. And they passed that same sensibility on to me.
For a long while, both my dad and my grandmother beat me senseless at Scrabble. And, of course, their idea of encouragement was usually along the lines of "Well, you won't be terrible forever," which they invariably followed up with a laugh. (My therapist says I'll get over it - maybe.) After a while, I caught on and began to understand the importance of strategy, of keeping your opponent away from double- and triple-word scores while making the most of those bonus spaces yourself. Ultimately, I started beating my dad and my grandmother, much to their chagrin. Once, while I was playing against my grandmother, I received a phone call from a friend. The call went like this:
Friend: "What are you doing?"
Me: "I'm totally destroying my grandma at Scrabble. It's a rout!"
My friend was mortified. My grandmother didn't even blink. If she hadn't been losing so badly (seriously, I whipped her that day), she would have nodded proudly.
Today, because of those sessions, I'm usually good for somewhere between 250 and 300 points in a heads-up game. Respectable for a casual player but worlds removed from the games played by Michael Cresta and other competitive players.
I first heard of Cresta this past fall. He lives in Saugus, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, and is a carpenter by trade. He's also a longtime Scrabble enthusiast. A few years ago, Cresta began playing competitively - that is, he joined a Scrabble club and started playing in games that use time clocks (giving each player 25 minutes to act) and are sanctioned by the National Scrabble Association. He saw a marked improvement in his skills and built his average score to about 400. His high score was a little over 500. It was, that is, until the night he became a pop-culture phenomenon and the envy of Scrabble players everywhere.
One night last October, in the basement of a Unitarian church in Lexington, Cresta scored 830 points, the highest total ever recorded for a sanctioned game in North America. (The previous record was 770.) It was the equivalent of a semipro baseball player breaking Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Suddenly, Cresta was being interviewed by Slate and the Boston Herald and a host of others. He became a (quasi) celebrity overnight, and a slew of Scrabble fans began whispering his name with the same reverence reserved for other pop-culture icons - great men and things like Yakov Smirnoff and Bon Jovi and Alf. Especially Alf.
"The attention - it's been nice," Cresta says. For a man who knows so many words, he's actually a man of few words.
Having tested myself against my grandmother and my father, I was sure that I was ready to take the next step and compete against the best, against Cresta. I challenged him to a game, and he accepted. (Actually, I asked politely, lest the Scrabble gods curse me with endless racks of vowels.)
In preparation, I studied my twos and threes - two- and three-letter words like et and pyx that seem nonsensical to most English speakers but which are an integral part of competitive Scrabble. Problem was, there are 101 two-letter words and 1,015 three-letter combos approved by the National Scrabble Association. Yikes, right? Making matters worse was the fact that I have an awful memory. (Once, I forgot my girlfriend's name during a romantic dinner. I mumbled something different, hoping she wouldn't notice. She did. Needless to say, she stopped being my girlfriend shortly thereafter.) But I persevered. When my friends went out on the weekends, I stayed home and studied words and played online. My training was just like Rocky's - only without the raw eggs and running and, you know, face pummeling. Otherwise, though, just like Rocky's.
When the day arrived, I felt ready to rock. I was certain I'd have a good showing, maybe even vanquish the Scrabble master on his home turf (we played at his house). Then I got a call from Cresta, one that completely threw me: "Can you bring tiles?" he asked. "I only have 98 in my bag." What kind of Scrabble champ is two tiles short of a full bag? I wondered. His version of a Jedi mind trick, no doubt.
Unfortunately for me, the mental intimidation continued after we sat down. I played what can only be described as the worst game in Scrabble history. Okay, okay, I'm being hyperbolic. But it was close to being the worst game in history. The truth is, I was nervous. I felt like an NBA rookie charged with the task of defending Dwyane Wade. Cresta effortlessly made 20- and 30-point words - words like aas and xu and hm - by hitting the double- and triple-word-score spaces.
Meanwhile, despite having played countless games in the past, I completely folded and generally came off as a rank amateur. Among my many mistakes: I spazzed out and dropped the bag of tiles, spilling them everywhere; later, I took eight tiles instead of the requisite seven (I did this more than once, actually). Worst of all, while Cresta was taking a phone call, I wanted to build off the word your, which was already on the board. I was going to put guts and use the s to make yours. But I didn't think that would be an impressive enough score, so I put down gutter instead, in an attempt to prove to Cresta that I had game. Except, when he came back, he noted that one of the t's in gutter was resting at the end of your, creating an entirely new and wrong word: yourt. I'm not sure whether he thought I was cheating or just dim-witted. Either way, that was pretty much the end of whatever confidence I had left.
Final score: Cresta, 416; John "Yourt" Gonzalez, 229.
"It's okay," Cresta said. "You didn't play half bad."
No, just all bad. While Cresta was trying to make me feel better, an old Married with Children episode played on his TV in the background. Al Bundy was talking to one of the other characters, but he may as well have been speaking directly to me: "Oh," he said with anguish in his voice, "I can't stand the pain!"