Gus Frader took Scrabble seriously. Oh, not as seriously as people who played in tournaments and studied word lists like they were memorizing sacred texts, but more seriously than the “blue hairs” who attended his weekly Scrabble Club.
Gus was taught the game by his mother and had played it for 67 of his 78 years. He still had his mother’s yellow lazy Susan she used to put the board on so it rotated for each player’s turn.
The Scrabble board that Gus had used for 15 years was custom-made with a built-in lazy Susan. It featured a black-and-white picture of the actor Chuck Connors from Gus’s favorite old TV show, “The Rifleman.”
While he was decidedly old school, Gus embraced newer technology and had tried Facebook Scrabble and Words with Friends. He despised them. For one thing, players can’t challenge words, which takes away the human element. If you try to play a word that is not a word or misspelled, you get a do-over.
Gus hated that the design of the Words with Friends board makes scoring so easy it is akin to a basketball hoop 3 feet off the ground with a rim as big as a Hyundai. Gus speculated that a high-functioning chimpanzee could probably break 200 points in the game.
The Scrabble Club that Gus attended met at 6:30 p.m. each Tuesday in the senior center. The 12 regulars avoided playing Gus mainly because he was such a good player, but also because he was a ruthless braggart.
Gus’s secret weapon was bingos. When you played all seven of the tiles on your rack at once, you received a 50-point bonus.
In the 11 years he had been coming to the club, only one person had beaten him. Ruth Chisamore showed up one day three years ago and thumped a frustrated Gus by nearly 200 points. Gus demanded a rematch, but Ruth said she had to go and then no one heard from her again.
Then one day, she came back. When she walked into the room, all eyes shot from Ruth to Gus and back again. The only things missing were the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and a tumbleweed rolling across the floor.
Ruth walked to the table where Gus was sitting and started to pull out her custom Scrabble board, emblazoned with a color picture of Wonder Woman from the 1940s. Gus waved her off and pulled out his trusty Rifleman board.
Without saying a word, the game began. Ruth’s second word was a bingo, ATONIES, for 77 points. Gus fidgeted and repeatedly pulled awful letter tiles.
After three more plays, Ruth bingoed again with OVERFAR and Gus’ frustration was compounded when he unsuccessfully challenged the word and lost his turn.
It was a slaughter even worse than the first time they played. As the tile bag neared empty, Gus had fallen behind, 379 to 178.
Then he saw it.
Two plays earlier, Ruth had played UNAIDED for her third bingo, but had made the error of opening up two triple word scores at the top of the board. So if Gus could make an eight-letter word, including the “U” on the board, his score of the letters played would be tripled, then tripled again and also have 50 bonus points added for the cherry on top.
Gus’ tiles were Q, Y, I, Z, F, I and a blank. He shuffled them and a word appeared: QUIZZIFY. It was one of those magical words that comes along once in a lifetime.
Using the “U” on the board, the word would reach the two triple word scores and his “Z” hit the double letter score between them. He did the math: 419 points! But it was Ruth’s turn and if she played there, all was lost.
Gus put on his poker face, but he started to sweat profusely and his heart pounded.
Ruth’s eyes darted around the board. She started to play . . . and it was somewhere else! Ruth laid her tiles down on the board, counted her score, but before she could announce it, Gus’s head hit the table beside the board as he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Ruth’s play? DEAD for 24 points.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected].