(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

We seem to be living in unusually cruel times, a dog-eat-dog world in which the needs of the little person have been largely subjugated to the demands of capitalism; where the playing field is not level; where our tax system favors the rich over the poor; where compassion seems to be considered a ludicrously outdated role of government.

To navigate this heartless, mean-spirited era, I recently learned all I am ever going to need to know by playing a single game of Scrabble on my smartphone against a computer. My findings are below.

1. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

I was urged to take up this game by my editor, Tom the Butcher, who is well known to be a frugal man. Tom mentioned three times that this app is free, and it is, but it turns out you are paying for it with your time and with calls upon your forbearance. After every single one of your moves, this free app subjects you to a pitch for a different product or service, one you must accept or turn down before you proceed. You are playing Scrabble, focused on words, but you must constantly consider whether you also want Uber. Spider Solitaire? Acorns investments? Sneakers for $28? Classes at the University of Phoenix? You can actually do it by deadening your brain so that you do not let any of these ideas penetrate for a moment. Sort of the way our president deals with criticism.

2. Anonymity is a double-edged sword, as it is in our modern world.

On the one hand, it encourages bluntness. But there is a dark downside. The Butcher chose an option allowing him to play anonymously in real time with another person. Tom was EVISCERATING the guy, maybe 115 to 45. Then he realized that all of his opponent’s words were, like, “cat” and “dog” and “cow.” He was most likely competing with a 7-year-old. His lesson was in the power of selective denial. See above. “Hey, I was killing him,” Tom says, proudly.

3. The playing field may not be level — it is a gamed system — but there are ways to game the gamed system.

I have a pretty good vocabulary but was only playing the computer to a draw, even though it was, on some levels, pretty stupid. (It didn’t seem to understand, for example, the vastly important strategic use of triple-word squares.) The computer’s success was because it had memorized every obscure word in the Scrabble dictionary, words even most lexicographers wouldn’t know, and so it could regularly employ the following: “nug,” which is a chunk of marijuana, and “yage,” which is a ceremonial medicine used by indigenous people of the Amazon basin, and “lias,” which is the earliest part of the Jurassic period, and “wo,” which is an obsolete spelling of “woe,” and “sware,” which is an archaic spelling of the term for uttering an oath, and my favorite, “gotch,” which is a slang term for underpants in Saskatchewan. All accepted by the Scrabble dictionary. I was like an average Joe, a working stiff pitting myself against, say, a New York real estate developer, born rich and further granted through sleazy connections insider knowledge that gave him an unbeatable hand.

But there was a loophole. Since there were so many ridiculous words the dictionary recognized, and no penalty for making an incorrect guess — you just try again — I could string together a smorgasbord of letters and cross my fingers. Which is how I learned, right near the end of the game, that “roque” is a form of croquet played on a hard court next to a riverbank. Forty points! I was in the lead. Which is where I hit Point 4:

4. The house always wins because the house writes the rules.

After my last move, I was ahead 290 to 286. Yay! I win. But no, the app informed me that I had one letter left, worth four points, and that the computer had used all its letters, meaning I wound up with four points fewer, which were awarded to the computer, meaning I lost 290 to 286. Could the app prove that the machine had used all its tiles? Nope. I had to accept it, unexplained, unapologized for. Sort of like the electoral college.

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