For many years my morning routine did not vary. It started with cups of black coffee, an ink pen and the daily New York Times crossword puzzle.
The Times‘s crosswords are always found in the Arts section, and barring titillating news, I quickly shed Page One for later reading as well as the Opinion Pages, which I like nearly as much as news.
The puzzles were addictive. They started with relatively easy ones on Monday and increased in difficulty as the week passed. By Saturday, when the answers were often multiple words, I frequently threw up the white flag.
But about a year ago I found a new sweetheart on Nebra’s i-Pad. She was already playing a Scrabble-like game called Words With Friends. I tried it out and fell in love even though the game does not require the word-skills of Scrabble and allows “cheating.”
The game goes like this. An opponent and I are each dealt seven tiles by a computer, which also determines who plays first. Just as in Scrabble, the first word must cross the center square on the board. The computer keeps score. The players can choose not to play, or swap letters thereby losing a turn. The key to victory is playing high-scoring letters, like the Z, Q, K or the two blank tiles on Triple-Letter, Triple Word squares, or even Double-Letter, Double Word squares.
The game allows only one Username, so I adopted Nebra’s name. There was no confusion, since she played only friends and acquaintances and I only computer-generated “random” opponents. It was easy. The problem was Nebra had a feminine Username, and I would on occasion run into a foe who was more interested in romance than the game. Personal questions would pop up on the game’s chat board. Some very raunchy and explicit.
Through December I enjoyed enormous success, winning 55 of 61 games. But as 2012 opened up I found two or three really good opponents and I played them regularly. My winning percentage went down. I understood that. But something else was happening that bothered me.
Take one opponent. I’ll call her “mary kay.” We were very competitive for the first five or six games. But then she started beating me regularly, often by huge margins. Now everyone “cheats” in Words. Unlike Scrabble, you do not lose a turn for constructing an unacceptable word. In fact, Words allows you, if you want, to form a word by trial and error using every letter in the alphabet. I’ve done that. But, I think, there is a limit to cheating.
I felt “mary kay” was not only using the so-called word-builder programs, that provide acceptable words of the most esoteric origin imaginable. Like chemical terms and Scottish words. But she was using a computer to make every play for her. In short, I lost faith in Words With Friends and have not played for months now. I suppose “mary kay” could have advanced from “very good player” to “genius” overnight. But I doubt it.
While I have not returned fully to the Times crosswords, I see it as a pastime for “purists” who compete only against themselves, not against an opponent using a computer.
And, if I want to play a board game involving words, I’ll play real Scrabble. Not fake Scrabble, which is what Words With Friends really is.
Words With Friends can quickly morph into a game of computer skill and know-how and winning at all costs, a mentality that plagues the land. And yet it is an inescapable product of human competition in any pursuit.