Playing Fair in the Game of Life

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 15, 2019

Imagine a poker game with one person winning every pot. Eventually, all the players but that one winner will become tapped out unless someone else starts winning. This is a good analogy for wealth inequality.

The challenge to the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls is making rule changes to the game we all play. Warren and Sanders want to make drastic changes to the rules to quickly make our society fairer to all, but that scares both the conservatives and the older well-to-do liberals. Biden promises to just tweak the rules a bit which enrages the extreme liberals who want significant change sooner.

We’re all playing this game of economic life whether we realize it or not, even when we think we’re not participating. Our economy is a game that everyone plays and the rules are decided by politics, laws, and voting. We like to think we’re a democracy and we all decide how the game is played but that’s not true. The winners of the game keep altering the rules so they can keep winning.

What would society be like if the game was played fair? What if everyone had an equal say in making the rules of the game, how would society differ from how we play the game now? Would wealth start circulating amongst all the players? Or will the winners refuse to ever change the rules? Maybe losers don’t want to change the rules either. Maybe they hope to be winners someday? How many players have to be wiped out before they realize their true odds of becoming a winner?

Right now a majority of our citizens believe everyone should work to make a living, and if you fail you should suffer the consequences. If you doubt this read “The American Right: It’s Deep Story” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild had come up with a little story she tells people that’s a Rorschach test for conservative thinking. Read it to see how you react, then read her article for how she interprets your reaction.

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. Others besides you seem like you – white, older, Christian, predominantly male. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone in line. Then, look! Suddenly you see people cutting in line ahead of you! As they cut in, you seem to be being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they?

Many are black. Through federal affirmative action plans, they are given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunch programs. Others are cutting ahead too – uppity women seeking formerly all-male jobs, immigrants, refugees, and an expanding number of high-earning public sector workers, paid with your tax dollars. Where will it end?

As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re asked to feel sorry for them all. People complain: Racism, Discrimination, Sexism. You hear stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees. But at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy – especially if there are some among them who might bring harm.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it or asking for help, you’re proud to say. You believe in equal rights. But how about your own rights? Don’t they count too? It’s unfair.

Then you see a black president with the middle name Hussein, waving to the line cutters. He’s on their side, not yours. He’s their president, not yours. And isn’t he a line-cutter too? How could the son of a struggling single mother pay for Columbia and Harvard? Maybe something has gone on in secret. And aren’t the president and his liberal backers using your money to help themselves? You want to turn off the machine – the federal government – which he and liberals are using to push you back in line.

Strangers in Their Own LandTo go deeper into what Hochschild is revealing with her “Deep Story” test, read her book Strangers in Their Own Land. She finds that conservatives identify with this story. In past decades I’ve known many conservatives that have told me variations of this story. But their resentments and prejudices keep us from making society fair. What I find ironic is many of the people who resonate with Hochschild’s Deep Story claim to be Christians, but isn’t her story an anti-Gospel?

We don’t have to examine the whole economic system to see how it’s unfair. Just look at companies like Amazon and Uber as samples. A few people in each company make billions while most workers barely make a living, yet each company would collapse without the low-paid participants in their shared game. Why do thousands of employees have to work their asses off so one guy gets rich enough to have his own space program? Why do Uber drivers put in all the millage but don’t get their fair share of the fares? Why is Trump so desperate to keep his tax returns secret? Is it because he doesn’t want us suckers to know he’s rich without paying his fair share of taxes?

What if labor got a fairer share of the rewards of our economic game? Somehow we’ve decided the owners of a company deserve more money than the people who punch the clock. Is that how we really want to play the game? Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to make the game fairer by taxing the winners and use the government to redistribute the winnings. This is one way, but is it the only way, or the best way?

If you don’t understand the long history of capital v. labor I highly recommend reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. Before the industrial revolution wealth was mostly in owning land, and the landowners used slaves, serfs, peasants, and tenant farmers to make themselves wealthy. When industrialization came along those with capital shifted to owning businesses and letting labor do all the work to make them wealthy.

The reason why capital has always been at war with labor is capital didn’t want to share the rewards of the game. They have always fought unions because of greed. They have always embraced automation because of greed. If they could completely eliminate labor they would. Just see how hard Uber wants to develop self-driving cars, or Amazon to add robotic book pickers. If we extrapolate these trends into the future we’ll have a game with very few winners owning a lot of robots and mostly jobless losers.

Our present economic system is rigged to produce fewer winners. We think because unemployment is low most people are still in the game. But is that really true? The economy doesn’t have a finite pot of money, wealth is always being created. But it appears the 1% are acquiring all the old wealth and new wealth at an increasing speed. Liberals have a history of creating safety nets to keep players in the game. Conservatives even begrudge this level of wealth redistribution. If Warren or Sanders is going to win in 2020 they need to convince a vast majority of players there’s a genuine need to redefine the rules to keep the game from collapsing.

Capital needs consumers with money to spend. That means labor must stay in the game. That’s why we’re hearing talk of guaranteed incomes. If the rich aren’t willing to share their wealth now I doubt they will in this future scheme. This means the present game will end when the very few have corned all the chips and the economy falls apart.

Capital is against universal healthcare because they profit from limited healthcare. Republicans and conservatives are passionately fighting any changes to the game. They see any proposal to redistribute wealth as an attack on the existing game rules that favor them winning. Is there a way to change the game to be fairer to everyone that doesn’t involve redistributing the wealth?

Can the 99% create their own wealth without interfering with the 1%? I recently read an article that said the lower 50% has already been drained by the 1% and now they are working to drain the other 49% percent. Wealth transfer to the wealthier even effects millionaires. For Bill Gates to have $100,000,000,000 means 100,000 people aren’t millionaires. And for every 1,000 billionaires, we don’t have a 1,000,000 millionaires.

How can Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have their own space programs? How many underpaid workers does that take to build that science-fictional dream? Is the game really fair when some winners in society can afford to play NASA and millions of losers are without homes? Even if we rationalize losers don’t deserve anything because they don’t work, does anyone in our rich society deserve to have so little? Bezos and Musk cannot have their space programs without the whole society supporting them.

Isn’t what we want is a fair society that rewards hard work but is passionate toward those who can’t compete? Don’t we also want a society that is ecologically friendly and sustainable? How do we change the rules to get that if the greedy want to keep playing the existing game?

The game requires everyone to play, even when they don’t work or vote. I’m sure conservatives would love to ship off all the unemployable to another country. A certain percentage of the active economy generates wealth by taking care of people who can’t. If they didn’t exist, these caretakers would be out of a job too. We’d have to exile them. But then that would put more people out of work. See the snowball growing? All activity in the economy goes into generating the total wealth of the economy. And yes, building private space programs do create jobs, but how much more economic activity would our economy have if average workers were paid more?

I’m not saying billionaires shouldn’t have their rewards, but couldn’t the rewards of a successful company be spread around fairly? Why do the owners and shareholders get all the profits? Because labor has always been the target of cost reduction. It’s so ingrained that it’s a religion with business. But if the wealthy don’t want to have their taxes raised they should consider raising the wages of their employees so society won’t have to raise taxes on the rich to help the poor.

The trouble is people who have gained seldom want to give back. Of sure, they become famous philanthropists, but that’s not really giving, is it? It’s just another expression of being a winner.

I don’t know why I keep writing these essays. Striving to describe how things work does not change anything. I’ve been reading about Plato lately. He had lots of insights into how things work. And over the centuries society has changed. That’s hopeful. Everyone has way more than what everyone once had. Besides more material wealth, we have more peace and personal health than our ancestors.

Yet there is still so much poverty and sickness in our world today. Can’t we change the rules of the game to help them? Aren’t there more billionaires today because there are more workers getting ahead? Wouldn’t universal healthcare stimulate the overall economy? Would giving the homeless homes stimulate the economy? Doesn’t raising the living standards for the 99%, create more wealth for the 1% to chase?

I see the 2020 election as a referendum. It’s not really about Trump, he’s only the face of greed. Voting for Trump is a vote for maintaining the plutocracy. Voting for a democrat will be a vote to change the rules.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Things SCRABBLE: Word Freak, Word Wars and Scrabylon

I’ve always been a piss-poor SCRABBLE player, so it’s strange that I picked up this book about SCRABBLE tournaments and got totally engrossed in reading about the fanatical world of SCRABBLE players.  Words With Friends has changed my attitude towards playing SCRABBLE, a game I’ve always thought as tedious.  Words With Friends is easier to play, and always handy.  I keep ten games going and make plays throughout the day.  When I saw Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players by Stefan Fatsis I bought it thinking it might help my game.  Word Freak came out in 2001, but in 2011 it had a 10th anniversary edition, with a 30 page update.  Because the Word Freak was so fascinating I went searching for more information about SCRABBLE players, and their tiny world of word geeks.  I thought I’d collect what I found for a blog post, since I love reading about micro-subcultures.

Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis (2001)

wordfreak

For some reason Word Freak just grabbed me and I couldn’t put it down.  Stefan Fatsis, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and NPR, started out doing a short article on SCRABBLE players, and their tournaments.  Then he got hooked on competing himself.  Word Freak is a memoir of Fatsis getting to know many of the major SCRABBLE competitors and his efforts to improve his own skills to get higher rankings in the tournaments.  SCRABBLE players have a rating system somewhat like chess players.  Fatsis started off playing in the 700s and by the end of the book was ranked 1697.  He’s currently ranked 1597.

Even if you hate playing SCRABBLE you might find Word Freak worthy of reading.  Fatsis takes a complex subject and explains it in very clear details.  Word Freak is really about three subjects that Fatsis weaves together.  At one level the book is about the history of a game and how the tournaments work.  At the next level its about lexicology and studying words.  Finally, the story is about obsessive people, and how far they will go to become great at playing a game, and how that changes their lives.

Reading the book does require some patience – it’s somewhat technical when it comes to words and wordplay.

Word Wars – Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit (2004)

After reading Word Freak I checked Netflix and found Word Wars, available on disc and streaming.  The documentary film by Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo credited Stefan Fatsis and Word Freak as their inspiration.  The film followed  four players Joe Edley, Matt Graham, Marlon Hill and Joel Sherman for nine months as they prepared for the 2002 National Scrabble Championship.  All four were profiled extensively in Word Freak, so it made me happy to meet them on film.

Scrabylon (2003)

Finally, I got to see Scrabylon, a film by Scott Petersen, which was made before Word Wars, but is pretty much about the same cast of characters.  By now I was beginning to burn out some on SCRABBLE documentaries, but I still want more.  I can’t help but wonder how things are ten years later?  Are the old players being pushed out by bright new word freaks?  In the book and films, all the players talked about SCRABBLE tournaments becoming more successful, to offer bigger prizes and get more public attention.  I’m not sure that’s happened.  Quite often I have seen short pieces in the news about SCRABBLE championships, but they don’t reflect the hoped for growth.

scrabylon

After reading the book and seeing these films I started thinking about my own skills.  In Words With Friends I’m averaging about 22 points per words, but there are players that average over 200 points per word.  I assume they are cheating, but maybe not.  I win a lot of Words With Friends games, but I don’t think I’m a particularly good player.  Reading Word Freak made me want to improve at Words With Friends, but maybe also play SCRABBLE itself, live with friends.

SCRABBLE v. Words With Friends

Many people think they are playing SCRABBLE when they are playing Words With Friends, but it’s really two very different games.  Which is why Words With Friends isn’t being sued out of existence.  The boards are different, the tile values are different, the number of tiles are different, but most importantly, you have to know how to spell to play SCRABBLE, whereas you can endlessly guess in Words With Friends.  In SCRABBLE you can intentionally play a phony word to bluff your opponent.  But if she challenges you and the agreed upon dictionary supports her, you lose your turn.  SCRABBLE is all about memorizing real words.  Words With Friends is all about finding real words that’s acceptable to the game.  You can try as many as you want.  With SCRABBLE you only get one try.

Words With Friends is also notorious for people cheating.  Playing real SCRABBLE, with real people, with a real board, not in cyberspace, but real space, means you’re on your own to come up with words out of you’re own little brain.  When I get together with someone to play SCRABBLE my average word values go way down, and it feels like I’m straining my brain to play.

Skill Versus Luck

Chess is a game that is all skill.  SCRABBLE is a game that involves a huge amount of luck with a lot of skill.  SCRABBLE appeals to more people because it is accessible, and easier to play than chess.  Words With Friends is even easier and more accessible than SCRABBLE, which explains its huge success.

Tournament SCRABBLE players often whine about the poor tile combinations they pulled from the bag, but the real experts can use their tremendous word knowledge to make a bad rack of letters into a high scoring word.  That’s why they memorize tens of thousands of obscure words.  Knowing words and how they can be played in novel combinations in a board arrangement can thwart an opponent’s “lucky” streak of drawing good letters.

SCRABBLE Dictionaries

Professional SCRABBLE tournaments use various standard dictionaries.  Players spend time every day learning the words in those dictionaries – often without learning their meanings.  Because English is a world-wide language, SCRABBLE is even played by people whose first language is not English, deciding on an official dictionary is difficult.  Basically it breaks down into three groups of English words.  Tournaments in the U.S., Canada and Thailand use the Official Tournament and Club Word List (TWL) (178,691 words).  For international play, SCRABBLE players use SOWPODS, which combines American and British words (267,751 words).  Players using SOWPODS have more words they can play, but it also means potentially memorizing almost a hundred thousand more words.  This also makes it difficult for world players to compete in America, because they need to know which words not to use, or for Americans to compete internationally, which means they need know all the additional words that can be used.  Plus players need to know when to challenge a phony.

For non-professional, home players of SCRABBLE, Hasbro recommends The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), now in the 4th edition.  The OSPD doesn’t have “offensive” words in it, which many professional and amateur players like to reply on.  Strangely, the internal dictionary for Words With Friends allows some offensive words and not others.

Because on July 1, 2013, Hasbro, the American maker of SCRABBLE, is dissolving the National Scrabble Association (NSA), which it has hosted for 25 years, things might change.  Since 2009, North American tournament SCRABBLE is organized by the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA).  Here is NASPA’s most recent statement on word lists.

Word Freak has an extensive discussion and history of SCRABBLE players struggling to come up with an official dictionary.  It’s a fascinating problem.  Words are constantly added to the language.  Words also go out of favor, but should they be removed from the official dictionaries?  Players want to use them.   As SOWPODS grows, the number of playable words grows, which makes it harder and easier for players.  It’s much easier to build elaborate tile combinations if they get to use all words, but at some point many of the words look like gibber-jabber.

Now, I’m not a tournament player, so my opinions don’t count.  But while reading Word Freak I was appalled by herculean efforts some professional players go to memorize words.  If all the top players have to become Rain Man to compete then it makes the idea of tournament play far less appealing.  It also bothers me that the players aren’t required to know the definitions of the words they play.

Learning Words

Professional SCRABBLE players spend hours a day learning words, usually from word lists.  2-letter, 3-letter, 4-letter lists, and so on.  Or from lists of special words, like all the Q Words, or  Q Words Without U.  Most non-tournament SCRABBLE players eventually get around to memorizing short lists, but few people have the stomach for the long lists.  That’s what separates the living room players from the rated players.

Tournament players often print out long lists of words, thousands and thousands of them, and cut them into flashcards, so they can study them a hundred at a time.  I would never do this.  I’m surprised by how much memorization Stefan Fatsis had to pursue to write his book and become a expert player.  I think it’s the willingness to study the long lists that separate merely great players from wannabe tournament champions.

Anagramming

Another astonishing feature of word power shown by professional SCRABBLE players is their ability to anagram verbally.  You know how parents often spell out words in front of young children so kids won’t know what the grownups are talking about, well, I’m 61 and if people verbally spell out words I don’t understand them.  So it blows me away that these SCRABBLE players can spell out 8, 9, 10, 11 or more letters and they can anagram them in their heads.  Fatsis reported that the tournament players often sat around playing anagrams after the tournament ended each night.  But Fatsis was also told that learning to anagram was a key tool to learning to compete in SCRABBLE competitions and raising his competitive rating.

Strategy and Bingos

Another big difference between living room players and tournament SCRABBLE players is their ability to plan ahead, and especially, plan their end games.  Competition level plays constantly seek to get Bingos – playing all seven letters from their rack at once.  Great players track the titles played and know which letters might be in the bag or on their opponents rack, and they often play short words one round in hopes of pulling the letters to make a bingo in the next round.

Average Words With Friends players love getting the Q and J because of their 10 point values, but competitive SCRABBLE players often consider these letters a burden.  They’d rather get letters, with lesser values, that help them make bingos.  They are always collecting prefixes and suffixes thinking about 7 letter words + 1, those words that can be made from 7 letters on the rack and hooked to one letter on the board.  They especially love making 8, 9, and 10 letter words by playing 7 titles across three lines of words.

You can follow the game where Mark Landsberg achieved the highest score ever to see how such strategy works.

Visit cross-tables.com to follow games, tournaments, strategy and tools.

If you really want to get caught up in SCRABBLE competition you can read The Last Word newsletter or join SCRABBLE Club or Internet Scrabble Club.

Word Freak chronicled Fatsis meeting many champion players and their own personal strategies they used to win.  Most of their strategies involved game play or word study, but sometimes it involved brain drugs, meditation, positive thinking, attitudes towards winning, and even methods to achieve Zen-like flow.

Postgame Analysis, Quackle and Zyzzyva

Fatsis spends a lot of time analyzing games in Word Freak, and he reports that most competitive players write down all their racks for every game they play and then analyze them later for possible better plays.  Often at the tournaments, players will gather together to tell each other better possible words to each play.  Many players use computer software to analyze their games.  Two such programs are Quackle and Zyzzyva.  There are many online programs and dictionaries to help players find more word combinations from any given set of letters.  Many Words With Friends players use these tools to cheat. but they can also be used to practice

Changing My Game

I still enjoy Words With Friends, but I think I need to switch to SCRABBLE.  I know I will never push my mind to be a SCRABBLE champion, but I do think I should push it to memorize words.  I have started paying more attention to word spellings as I read books.  Like I said earlier, I was disappointed that SCRABBLE masters don’t focus on word definitions.  Stefan Fatsis spent a lot of time in his book dealing with word play and it made me want to study words more, maybe even read some books on lexicology.  I think I’ll start with Word Buff.

I won’t be making lists of words to memorize, but I might start studying words in general, and their definitions.  Reading Word Freak and watching these documentaries made me aware of my wimpy vocabulary.  My wife Susan has always loved anagrams, crossword puzzles, and other word puzzle games, and she’s always been much better than me at SCRABBLE and Word With Friends.

JWH – 6/16/13 (Happy Birthday Susie)