Scrabulous devotees beware: Bwog newcomer Mariela Quintana shares a cautionary tale of addiction, rehabilitation, and quasi-salvation in the form of a charity Scrabble tournament.

For many a puzzler, the insatiable need for crosswords can spiral into an addiction.  Like any nasty habit, crosswording starts as a leisure activity and spawns into an all-consuming compulsion, driving its victims to steal crosswords from waiting room magazines, to desperately horde their goods for private use and to deny any need of help.

    The satisfaction that completing a crossword provides makes this at once an appealing activity and also a deadly one.  The perfect X-word may, in fact, may seem impossible at first, but in the end the solver should triumph and think: Oh, how clever I am! Is it any surprise then, that this self-indulgent assurance of one’s own acumen is a favorite pastime among members of the Columbia community? I should think not.

    By New Year’s, the level of my crossword consumption had surpassed satisfaction and reached disgust. For 2008, I resolved to cut-down on crosswords.  I was nervous, but as any crossword addict would know, a challenge is only an occasion to harness our signature mental dexterity and cerebral savvy. In past weeks, I have found new ways to utilize the time I had once devoted to my addiction. I’ve come a long way; I visit museums, I catch up with old friends—I even began performing community service!

    A wordgame-free future seemed well within in my grasp. That is, until I received an email from 826 NYC, a Brooklyn-based, after-school program where I volunteer.  They were organizing a Scrabble tournament to raise money to fund writing and literacy programs. The tournament was dubbed Scrabble for Cheaters and not playing by the rules was essential to winning the game. In the weeks prior to the tournament, teams could purchase the ability to use specific cheats: rejecting opposing teams’ words, buying vowels or the letters q, x, or z, or the most expensive cheat of all—for $500, the ability to make up a word. Use of the latter resulted in gibberish words that spanned the width of the Scrabble board.

    The tournament took place this past Sunday at the 826 headquarters on Brooklyn’s 5th Avenue. The intensity of the competition varied from cutthroat crossword combat to all in the name of good fun. The more light-hearted competitors embraced the team uniform requirement. One team dressed as “Geishas Gone Rock n’ Roll Glam” while another opted for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.  The final four favorites, many of who hailed from the local chapter of the National Scrabble Association (NSA), seemed to take the sport as seriously as I had taken crosswords in my darker days. The Vow-wow-els, a team c
omprised of two NSA members, studied quietly from the official NSA dictionary.  Another team shot obscure two letter words back and forth in preparation for the games ahead.  In these competitors, I observed the familiar feverish flush and quickened speech that reminded me of the uppity rush of crosswording.  

    Unfortunately, transitioning from crosswords to Scrabble is not always entirely seamless. The most salient difference between Scrabble and crosswords is also the most challenging and the most beneficial for the recovering puzzler: Scrabble involves direct social interaction where Scrabble does not.

    Where the former puzzler once found stimulation and comfort in isolation, now he finds them in the company of others.  The group participation involved in Scrabble safeguards the activity from the dangerous addiction that X-words are wont to become. A familiar admonition applies to Scrabble that applies to other vices: Friends Don’t Let Friends Play Alone.