Word lovers Mark Hubing, Lindsey Smith, Jes Burdick and Joe Tauchek meet at the Java Dock coffee shop in Port Washington to match Scrabble skills in pursuit of the elusive 500-point game.
“Touring,” a common word played by Lindsey Smith in a recent Scrabble game, used all of her letters. That’s called a bingo, and with a bonus for a triple-word score gave her an astronomical total of 84 points for a single word.
Two weeks earlier, Smith opened a game with “reunite,” a bingo that added up to 70 points.
She won both games.
“I’m into getting bingoes now,” Smith said. “I heard some Scrabble players score 500 points (in a game). That’s my new goal. My highest has been around 400, so I’ll have to step it up.”
Smith, who manages the Java Dock coffee shop in Port Washington, grew up playing Scrabble and other word games — her mother gives her a word-a-day calendar every year — but she only recently got back into playing the board game.
She and her husband Mark Hubing brought out the game on a rainy Sunday afternoon two months ago and got hooked. They invited friends Jes Burdick and Joe Tauschek to join them and, now the four play almost daily, sometimes two to three times a day.
That’s how addictive the game can become.
“It has nothing to do with how creative you can be with your words, but your strategy,” Burdick said. “I once made two triple words (in one move). That’s my best word ever.”
Smith added, “We’re genuinely excited to see good words played in good places.”
The only time she is competitive, Burdick said, is when she and Tauschek play alone.
“I can be a sore loser sometimes,” she said.
Port alderman Tom Hudson, who organized Monday night chess games in the upper level of the Java Dock several years ago, added Scrabble a year ago at the suggestion of his wife Elizabeth O’Connell, an avid Scrabble player.
Some nights, two or three games are going. Other nights, only one board is needed.
“I play with words all day when I write. Scrabble is an extension of what I do,” said O’Connell, a freelance writer who pens the Port Gardener column in Ozaukee Press.
“I learn new words all the time because if we don’t know what a word means, we’ll look up the definition. I’m only a good player with the friendly rules we have. If you want to check the spelling of a word, we let you do that. We play with such a fun group that most of the time we don’t look at the score.”
Ann Bohn of Saukville plays Scrabble when she brings her 14-year-old son Nic to play chess. If Nic has to wait to play chess, he also plays Scrabble, a game his mother said she can beat him at sometimes.
A first-grade teacher at a charter school in Milwaukee’s inner city, Bohn used to watch Nic play chess or correct papers before the Scrabble games started.
Now, she said, it’s a form of creative relaxation after a busy day of rushing from place to place.
“It’s more a collaboration than competitive,” Bohn said. “I meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and we talk about all kinds of things. I learn gardening from Elizabeth and about college from the young people.”
Bohn enjoys the game so much she decided to try a junior version with her students.
What started as a reward and challenge for more advanced readers has turned into a cooperative learning experience for students of all abilities, she said.
“I started with advanced readers and worked downward. The more advanced students would help other students,” Bohn said. “Now, the struggling readers want to play. They’re working together in a buddy system. Initially, they didn’t understand how to put words together and build off each other’s words.
“They’re realizing that they can actually spell these words. Most of these kids don’t have any board games at home, so I bring lots of games for them to use during free time.”
Bob Bley of Port Washington said he thought he was a good Scrabble player until he played with O’Connell and Rachel Hernandez, a 2007 Port High graduate who will major in linguistics and global literature at Stony Brook University in New York this fall.
“I’m definitely wired for words,” Hernandez said. “I love word games and I love Scrabble. The more you play, the better you get, and that’s always a good feeling.”
Hernandez usually makes several words with each play and gets frequent bingoes.
Her brother and sister-in-law also play Scrabble.
“Rachel and Elizabeth are tournament-quality players,” said Bley, who learned to play Scrabble from his mother and grandmother. His mother is at Lasata Care Center in Cedarburg, but they still play Scrabble at least once a week.
“It keeps her mind active and sharp. I’m happy she can do something like this,” he said.
Bley said he enjoys the strategy of the game and learning new words.
“Some two-letter words can score big time if you put them in the right place at the right time. If you land on a triple word with ‘qi,’ that’s 33 points right there,” Bley said.
“You try to block your opponent from scoring. If you get a high-number letter (such as Z, Q and X that are worth 10 points each) at the beginning of a game, you wait for the right place to play it, but if it’s in the middle of the game or near the end, I try to get rid of it quickly because someone may go out and you’re stuck with 10 points.”
Anyone is welcome to play chess or Scrabble for free from 7 to 10 p.m. Mondays at the Java Dock coffee shop, 116 W. Grand Ave. Players should bring a board if they have one. For more information, call Hudson at 284-1948 or visit www.chess.klanky.com, which has updates and cancellation notices.
Photo by Sam Arendt