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Backstory: Of carpenters and Scrabble kings

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If on that night a month ago Cresta was HOTHOTHOT at the table, he is less so on this evening. He sits across from Hilda Siegel, who is playing in Lexington while the Boston club to which she belongs is being relocated. The 15-by-15 square board is filling slowly, with respectable words like ZING, JOLLY, and QUIRE but nothing too remarkable. Cresta is a bit ahead.

Then Ms. Siegel "bingos," emptying her tray of seven tiles in a single play. The bingo boosts her score an additional 50 points, and she takes the lead. "Nice work," says Cresta, peering down at his own letters, mostly a mess of vowels.

Around Cresta and Siegel, 10 other games are in progress. An air of happy concentration fills the room. Other than the click of tiles being arranged in trays and the hushed tally of numbers, quiet prevails. Every so often, a pair of players rises from their chairs and hurries across the room to a laptop set up to settle challenged words. Chit-chat will come later, after the games are over or when people take a break for tea and cookies in the corner.

With the clock ticking, Cresta leans closer to the board. The skin around his nails is white from the grouting he did at work. He refuses to use certain words – profanity and "phonies," made-up words some players try to pass off as real. "Not ethical," he says. Finally he responds with OORIE, a low scorer that at least provides the chance to draw some consonants. He rummages around in the tile bag, extracts four pieces, and grins.

Siegel eyes him. "Be kind," she says.

Cresta keeps smiling, but in the end Siegel takes the game, 416 to 383.

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