Zimmerman: Scrambletes deserve some respect

April 18, 2012, 1:30 a.m.

I’ve been playing an egregious amount of Scramble with Friends lately. The Boggle-like iPhone app has consumed an inordinate amount of my time, even though, when compared to my friends, I’m just really not that good.

Still, nearly every conversation now directs itself back to our recent games, times we failed to notice that sexy “-ing” just waiting to be prefixed and confusion regarding the inclusion of some of our favorite derogatory colloquialisms (as well as the exclusion of others). In fact, we’ve all recently discovered that when we can’t get to sleep, we figure out all of the possible words that can be formed from a single stem.

Please save us. This is disturbing.

I’m confident that a few of my close Scramble buddies could put up a legitimately good fight against anyone out there. They have played enough anagram games that the reorganization of specific letter combinations has become second nature. These same friends are also masters of Sudoku, KenKen and a slew of other intellectually stimulating games.

But are they athletes?

To give you a bit of background, I have always been reluctant to liberally hand out the athlete card. I’m from the heart of NASCAR country, an area that draws more than 200,000 spectators twice a year to watch cars race around an oval, and I promised myself I would never consider it a sport. The same went for activities like bowling, fishing and poker. All fun, sure, but they just didn’t fit the bill.

Why? Conventional wisdom suggests that a sport must be physically demanding and require at least some athleticism, which is socially acknowledged as physical performance. Bowling a strike, catching bass and winning poker tournaments can be mentally exhausting, but you could also have never run a mile in your lifetime and excel relative to the general population.

The problem is, this definition of sport and athleticism–the only one that I have really ever known–isn’t really accurate. Merriam-Webster defines an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina.” Play a game of chess with a skilled opponent or grind out a 10-hour poker session before you tell me that those are games that don’t require stamina.

This column is not intended to take away from the traditional athlete. The time spent perfecting physical ability is impressive in and of itself, let alone witnessing the finished product in action. But after having my friends put the fear of God in me, a guy who is about to make a living using his words, I have a newfound respect for the undervalued athletes who spend countless hours crafting and maintaining a specific skill set, be it the ability to record a nine-dart finish in a pub or to memorize and employ every two-letter word in the Scrabble dictionary.

More so, there is a distinct connection between mental and physical performance. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to improve cognitive skills and dramatically slow down age-induced deterioration. Ask any new exerciser how his or her mental clarity has changed, and the answer will be remarkable. Suffice it to say, a healthy athlete is more well-rounded than you may think.

The common denominator in competitors ranging from basketball players to crossword enthusiasts is endurance. With the seeming inability to escape distraction in our daily lives, people able to withstand obstacles and persevere through mental and physical training should be commended. I, for one, get irritated and discouraged when I accidentally omit an obvious six-letter word or blow a fast-break layup in an intramural game. Sometimes I take full advantage of these mistakes and turn them into valuable lessons for the future. Sometimes I don’t. I’m not an elite athlete.

Those who can find the will to constantly improve are athletes in their own right. They’ll never earn the same recognition as their prototypical peers, but they deserve equal respect. Sports mean different things to different people and shouldn’t be bound by a false and misleading definition.

Does this mean I’d rather watch the Monopoly World Championships than the NBA Finals? Never. But what I will do in the future is slow my roll when passing judgment on athletic prowess.

Add me on Scramble with Friends. Let’s be athletes together.

We think Zach Zimmerman’s Scramble With Friends handle should be Chaz (get it?). Send more creative ideas to zachz “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter “at” Zach_Zimmerman.

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