In the beginning was the word, and the word was “zemstvos.” Henry had built off Julie’s V and made an eleventh-hour bingo. Julie was irritated, both because it had ruined her five-game winning streak and because she had never heard of the czarist-era word before.
Henry and Julie met on an Internet site that offered users a game almost identical to Scrabble. The difference with this online game, whose lexical choice for the site name had been the subject of numerous court cases, was that you had eight tiles instead of seven and a bigger board than the original Scrabble version. Henry’s screen name was “hunkyhenry.” His avatar was a gritty pirate, complete with stubble and an eye patch. Julie’s screen name, “seabreeze77,” reflected her wish to protect her identity online, and combined her favorite drink with her lucky number twice over. Her avatar (a young, attractive blonde woman) belied her age, her hair colour, and her ethnicity.
The first time they happened to stumble into each other’s virtual worlds Henry had done the very thing Julie disliked most, introducing himself with reference to his city when he wrote <greetings from vancouver!>
Julie rarely talked with anyone in the game’s tiny chat window while playing, though she was never rude. She would always start by abbreviating greetings and good luck salutations with a routine <Hi & gl,> or <Good luck again,> if she re-matched someone. She ignored people who tried to strike up a conversation and was particularly irked by those who wanted to exchange personal information, especially the location of where they were playing from.
Julie responded to Henry’s cheerful greeting with her characteristic opening. <Hi & gl,> she wrote.
<and gl 2u2,> he wrote back.
It was not very often that her opponent was also from Vancouver. Most of the people who bothered to introduce their hometown were from the United States, with the occasional player chiming in from some remote place like Bilbao or Mendoza. Early on in the game things were going swimmingly for Julie. She bingoed off her first word (“neonate”) and had a sizeable lead for much of the game. After a few more failed attempts to incite conversation, Henry began focusing his attention on making clever words in strategic places.
With no tiles left in the game’s “bag,” and with all hope for a victory practically eliminated, Henry put down the word that would draw Julie out of her shell. She had just put down “ovum,” leaving her with four tiles (S L E O). She planned on building “loves” off of the V in “ovum.” Much to her chagrin, however, Henry built off her V to make “zemstvos.” The word itself had given him 83 points, but when you factored in the bingo bonus (50 points) and the points from Julie’s remaining tiles (he went up 4, she went down 4), Henry won the game.
Julie was mortified. She felt Henry had played a subpar game up until then. He had failed to impress her with a single word he put down, save his last one. She was convinced he had used a cheat program to come up with the crazy-sounding word that she could not even pronounce. Henry immediately sent Julie an offer for a rematch. Ordinarily, Julie always liked to play a best of three series with opponents. Yet in cases where she felt the other person was cheating, she would block the person from ever matching her again in the future.
Julie was tempted to refuse Henry’s offer to play again and simply put the disaster behind her (a loss of two points to her ranking!). It was only after considering Henry’s ranking (he was an impressive 2189, a full 100 points ahead of her, which meant a victory would more than make up for the points she had lost in defeat), and the fact that he was gracious in his victory (he wrote <ty for the game…u deserved that win…got lucky there at the end> on the chatboard afterwards), that she decided to grant him the opportunity to play her again.
<You, too,> she wrote before clicking to accept his challenge. She offered her usual <Good luck again,> before glibly writing <Zemstvos, huh?>
He quickly replied with <u2!> and then explained <wild word, eh? picked it up in a book…russian lit. is awesome for those big, convoluted words.>
So, Julie thought as she arranged her tiles and waited for Henry to put down his opening word, he reads Russian literature. An avid reader herself, especially of fiction, Julie had spent many a night curled up on her living room couch in university reading the likes of Bulgakov, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov. While she was intrigued that he seemed to like the same canon of literature as her, she was more peeved by the fact that she had not known the word — and he had.