Showbiz is a blood sport where nearly everybody keeps score. As some people play it, you’re only as good as your last box office gross or audience share rating. No surprise that it attracts the most competitive and win-at-all-cost forms of carbon life. And I’m not just talking about in business itself. It’s also about where you’re seated in that certain restaurant, the location of your studio parking spot, whether you travel first class or by private jet, where your kids attend preschool…
…and even your ability to spell.
I’m not talking about a Hollywood subculture where celebrity word nerds engage in underground spelling bees. Though, now that I’ve thought of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if the notion is already being shopped to networks by reality producers.
No, folks. I’m talkin’ about the game Scrabble.
Before Words with Friends there was Scrabble. If you haven’t played the board game, it’s basically an exercise in making the best word possible from a random scramble of seven, single letter tiles. Some call it a spelling game. Some call it a game of wits and math. Some even refer to it as a war game in which letters are deployed into the field of play like soldiers armed with a variety of deadly weapons.
Before tying the knot with the War Department, I’d played the game just once. I recall it giving me a headache, not to mention making me feel inept. I eventually got the hang of it, playing on cold winter nights with my wife by a crackling fire. Thus was the sum total of my Scrabble experience prior to my invitation to the inaugural Quetzal Cup.
So what is the Quetzal Cup?
It began as an anniversary party for a Hollywood power couple. The pair rented a ballroom and invited all their smarty-pants friends to participate in a Scrabble tourney. Appropriately, it was a black tie event. Catered dinner. Open bar. And some sixty-four players all vying for the gaudiest, over-blinged four-foot trophy ever built. They named the trophy The Quetzal Cup, after the seven-letter word in the Scrabble Dictionary with the highest potential point value. I recall the party hosts furnishing handsome, striped-shirted referees, each holding a dictionary, ready to rush over to a game table to rule on spelling challenges.
As you might imagine, the evening was designed to be a hoot. A gathering of Type A show-folk, sated on fine food, drunk on free booze, and cowed by their inability to form a simple, one syllable word out of seven random tiles. The player who eventually won the night was the erstwhile headmaster to a posh private school. An academic. So no surprise there, right?
What followed, though, was a surprise. There was a clamor from the party guests to repeat the event, not to mention the countless calls and queries from the uninvited to score an invitation to the second playing of The Quetzal Cup.
A larger venue was procured. The number of players was doubled. And the tenor of the event turned shockingly serious. Sure, it was the same setup. Attire. Chow. Liquor. But it wasn’t just a bunch of competitive friends and family. There were authors present. Agents. Composers. Lawyers. Even the Ivy-League-educated daughter of a New York literary icon. Imagine my reaction when I learned that some of the new invitees were actually Scrabble tournament players. Within a year, what began as a lark and the world’s most ghastly trophy became something as coveted as—dare I say it—an Oscar.
Yes, indeed. The cup had a certified cache.
Okay. So maybe the cup wasn’t quite as coveted as a golden statuette. But the second playing of the event had an air of competition that landed somewhere between the Golden Globes and Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards.
My personal memory of the evening is still a bit of a blur. Not so much because of any boozing. I recall swilling more Diet Coke than my usual order of a double scotch on the rocks. Mental images remain—a constellation of tiles floating in my skull, some of which I was somehow able to string together into words.
I recall that my second match was against a stunning actress whose name nor face I couldn’t quite place. She played fiercely all the while sipping her vodka tonic through a straw stuck in the corner of her perfectly lipsticked mouth. It was when I so cleverly played a high-point word describing a female body part that I suddenly recalled in what movie I’d viewed my opponent. Or more importantly, in what state of undress I’d seen her in. In a game where it’s largely about forming words from random letters, the words “full” and “frontal” suddenly came to mind.
I couldn’t recall the last time I’d blushed. But I did recall a certain heat flushing across my face.
“Nice word,” she said flatly, never once looking up from the board.
Three moves later I’d closed out the match and was moving on to the finals. And not long after that I found myself being handed the world’s ugliest trophy. As part of my acceptance speech, I was expected to impart a few snarky phrases to to my fellow competitors.
Instead, I was momentarily caught speechless. And no. It wasn’t the formerly naked actress staring back at me as if she knew my secret. It was the entirety of players gazing back at me that caught me unawares. A hundred-plus industry folk dressed in formal attire with looks on their faces that I instantly recognized.
It was a look I’d seen my entire life.
You? How could you have you have pulled off a win? Seriously? But aren’t you the guy who writes those stupid action movies?
“Yeah, me,” I found myself saying into the microphone. “And I’m truly humbled. Hell, I’m as surprised as the rest of you. Who knew that action writers even knew how to spell?”
Sure. I got a few laughs with that line. As I was thanking my erudite hosts—one of whom was still trying to process my win—I simply remarked that words like “Kapow” and “Blam” must’ve been higher-value than he’d anticipated.
After the long evening, I drove home with the War Department by my side and the precious Quetzal Cup taking up the entire breadth of my sedan’s back seat. Then as I closed my eyes that night, I couldn’t help but reflect on my feelings. Not so much those of being victorious. But of being underestimated. A heavy yoke I’d been trying to unload my whole life.
Now before you think I’m turning this into a shrink session, relax. I’m fully aware of where and when my issues were borne. Want to hear about the time my mom conspired with my best friend to lure me to the local Army recruiter? Yup. Mom wasn’t convinced that my plans to move to Hollywood and make movies were much more than the wishful thinking of a dreamy kid with lousy grades.
I’ve got stories upon stories from a life of being underestimated, most of them more couch-worthy than blog-fodder. But my point is this. After fifty years of fighting to not be the last one picked for the team, I’m not just comfortable with my spot in the food chain. I relish in it.
For one, it makes me grind harder. It also affords me an immediate advantage. Underestimate me and I will most likely surprise you with not just a canvas-kissing left hook, but maybe a speech which moves you to tears or a plot-twist that thrills you enough to turn the page with breathless anticipation.
I’m not suggesting anybody reduce their lofty standards. But who hasn’t sat down for a picture or opened a book or tuned into a television show where expectations were set close to neutral, only to walk away engaged or impressed and wanting to get your Google on just to find out more.
Not that I mind anybody’s expectations of me being high. I want to both meet ‘em and/or exceed ‘em or fall on my ass from exhaustion trying. I just no longer mind nor lament anybody having their opinion of me land somewhere south of average.
As my yearlong reign as Quetzal Cup Champion came to its ceremonious end, I was forced to dig the trophy out of a dirty corner of my garage, dust it off, and return it that Hollywood power couple so the next overly competitive combatant could lay his or her mitts on it.
For awhile thereafter, every so often I’d be in a meeting on a project when, out of the blue, somebody would up and say, “Hey. Do you know so and so?” And “weren’t you the guy who won that Scrabble cup thing?”
“Yeah,” I’d say.
“How do I get an invite?” they’d ask.
“First you gotta learn some high-value words.”
Boom. Kapow. Blam.