Game On

How an ef and a gi paved the way to holiday happiness.

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This is the week the board games come out.

Kids are home from college or distant places, and schools and offices are closed. It's family time to be together and make holiday memories. For a few hours, we go retro. Please turn off your cell phones and electronic devices. We will see if we can get through a Scrabble game without anyone quitting, cussing, or having a temper tantrum. The odds of this happening are not good.

At our house the contestants are me, my wife Jenny, our daughter Katy visiting from Montana, and our friend Meredith, an art teacher with Memphis City Schools. It was "Game On" weeks ago, when we figured out when everyone would be in Memphis.

Katy has been a game wizard since the days of Uno, Monopoly, Upwords, and Rack-O. She does four-star sudokus in half an hour or so. She makes seven-letter "bingos" in Scrabble almost every game. You can feel it coming. Never leave her a triple-word square, and pray she does not draw a 10-point Z or Q or an 8-point X or an I-N-G or R-E combination or one of the blanks or S's. A five-letter word, for her, is a bad play. The last time I beat her in a board game was probably 2001.

Meredith is from Louisiana and brings us tasty homemade desserts and hand-made jewelry and is about half mean. She knows how to get under my skin. Everyone else's skin too, for that matter, but especially mine by playing a bogus word and daring me to challenge. She is a Scrabble sociopath. She likes to talk trash. Last year, she gave us the Scrabble book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis. I want to crush her. She is too much like me.

My wife is the good and kind mom and hostess that everyone likes, but I hate losing to her anyway. I will play a three-letter word for six points on a triple-word square just to keep her from getting it. Done it many times.

The board is the deluxe edition on a rotating base. The house rules are simple. No texting or tweeting, but talking is fine. No timers, but it is all right to harass a slow player. If you dish it out, you better be able to take it. All words must be in the hefty Webster's second edition dictionary with "special new word section," aka the "Stuckey dictionary," named for Ginny Stuckey, who gave it to us. Some legal Scrabble words are not in it, including a lot of two-letter and three-letter words, which often makes for spirited conversation. If you draw three of the same letter, you can throw one back. There is a missing C that has been replaced, tonight, by a square of a cracker. If you get three of a kind, you can have the cracker C. A rule is a rule most of the time.

A challenge costs you a turn if the word is in the Stuckey dictionary. In a four-player game, this can be fatal, because you must wait and watch for six agonizing turns while everyone else piles up points and draws the good tiles and plays on the good squares.

The game begins with everyone pulling seven tiles from the maroon velvet bag. Katy immediately dumps all of hers back and sacrifices a turn because she has six vowels. In it to win it. Meredith plays QI on a double-letter square, which is a totally bogus non-word, but nobody challenges because the stakes are too high, and it is only worth 21 points. The mood is still sort of Christmasy, but storm clouds are forming.

Jenny plays ER (used to express or represent a pause), and Meredith makes an unsuccessful challenge, knocking herself out of contention. Katy bingos with DEVIATES but hooks it to EF, which she claims is the spelling of the letter F. It's a potential 87-point game ender, but Jenny, prodded by me, challenges. EF is on the expert list of Scrabble words, but it is not in the Stuckey dictionary, or not exactly anyway. EF- is there as a prefix, which is illegal, and so is EFFING (slang, euphemism for a vulgarity). All-stars may get the call in the NBA but not in my house. No sale.

After I score 54 points with KNOWS on a triple-word square linked to WAIFS, the game comes down to me and Jenny separated by four points. Whoever goes out first will get to add the other players' remaining tiles to their score and win the game. With two tiles left, Jenny considers but passes on ORA (money of Anglo-Saxon England) and plugs an A between a P and a Y instead for nine points. I counter with GI (garment worn by martial-arts participants) linked to IS for five points and a tie, but since I go out first, I get all the bonus points and the victory.

This causes general merriment, hearty hugs all around, and warm congratulations. Not. More like slight smiles mixed with muttered complaints. My victory is tainted in some eyes by that effing EF and my unmanly decision to let Jenny take the risk of challenging it. This bothers me for about one minute. I have my GI, which rhymes with ME and VICTORY.

Who says Christmas comes but once a year?

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