Friday, June 15, 2012

Still Life With Robin: No Qis, Please

by Peggy Robin

About a month ago I attended a fascinating lecture at the Tenleytown Library by renowned author/journalist Stefan Fatis. Never heard of him, you say? Well, Stefan Fatsis, the author of Word Freak, is the most famous person in the Scrabble world, the man who almost singlehandedly changed the public perception of the typical Scrabble player from that of a genteel, middle aged lady who would otherwise be playing mah-jongg to that of a young, hyper-competitive, word-list memorizing obsessive-compulsive with zero social skills. In Word Freak, subtitled Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, tournament-level Scrabble play is more like Texas Hold’em at the World Championship of Poker – but without the jackpot at the end.

Fatsis fluently discoursed on the history and strategy of the game for over an hour; his audience of enthusiastic amateurs was riveted all the way through. At one point he discussed the change in game strategy that came about when the official word list (OWL) for tournament play was revised to accept words that contained a Q not followed by a U.  Among these are: burqa, faqir, qabala, qadi, qaid, qanata, qat, qi, qindar, qintar, qiviut, qoph, qwerty, sheqel, suq, tranq, and umiaq. It used to be that drawing a Q  without a U from the bag of tiles in Scrabble was like getting the “Go directly to jail” card in Monopoly – it was just one of the hazards of the game. The Q would just sit there on your rack like dead weight, unplayable, until you were lucky enough to draw a U or someone else played a word putting a U in an accessible spot.

Now, with so many U-less Q-words possible, it’s a different ball game – I mean, tile game. Which brings me to the game I played last night with my daughter, who happened to have the Q but no U, and didn’t let that slow her down. First, she made the word QAT (a Middle Eastern intoxicant) on the triple word score for a total of 36 points. At the same time the Q formed the word QI, defined in the Scrabble Official Word List as “The circulating life energy that in Chinese philosophy is thought to be inherent in all things” (it's pronounced “chee”) -- giving her an additional 11 points for a total of 47 points on the play.

“Nice move,” I said, although somewhat grudgingly.

On the following turn, she put down the word “twos” (as in twos and threes), the S of which turned the word QI into the plural, QIS. The S of both words landed on the double word score, for 14 points for “twos” added to 24 points for QIS, giving her a total of 38 points for the play.

But I wasn’t going for QIS. Okay, QI is definitely a word. It’s not just in the Scrabble dictionary; acupuncturists actually use it. Anyone who’s taken Chinese movement classes (tai qi) will have heard of it.  But it can’t be made plural just by sticking on an S, I argued. “Circulating life energy” is not something that can be counted like ducks.  If you have more of it, it’s still just QI.  Even if you were counting up discrete units of QI, you still wouldn’t pluralize it by putting an S at the end. The pattern is that of “yuan,” the Chinese unit of money: You still say “yuan” no matter how many of them you have. One yuan, ten yuan, a million yuan -- it's all just "yuan."

Except in the Official Word List, where you can have ten yuans. And apparently, two, three, many QIS.  We looked it up, and there it was, QIS, defined as "plural of QI." So she has racked up 85 points in two consecutive turns.  Earlier in the game she had played all seven letters in a single turn (a “bingo”, which earns 50 bonus points), by making the word ZOMBIES on the double word score, connecting to the word FUNK (“a state of nervous depression”, which I accept can be pluralized as funks, although I can’t think of any possible use in a sentence for more than one funk) – both of which added together gave her a whopping 105 points in a single turn. Later, toward the end of the game, she bingoed again, with TARTLET, for 61 points. She ended up winning by a score of 459 to my 334.

I know I should be proud of her. I know Stefan Fatsis would say she had played the game the way it was meant to be played. But I’m still in a bit of a funk --just one of them-- about the QIS.  

(For more about what words are acceptable and unacceptable in Scrabble, you might enjoy this article that Stefan Fatsis wrote in Slate May 12, 2011,


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Fridays.

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