Leo’s security camera app shows the black car pulling up to his colonial home. The contingent is early, and Leo still has much to do. In the game cellar, the board has been laid out on the polished oak table beneath spotlights. The tiles rest in silken sacks. A single gold-plated armchair faces a giant curved screen mounted to a wall. The chafers have been set out. The caterers are about to bring out the food. The freshly laundered red carpet runner needs to be unfurled to mark the path from the foyer to the cellar. The lavender and rosemary misters have yet to be activated. Mercy, the scent is called.
Leo equips his earpiece and instructs his assistant Dana to bring the glass-bottled water. He drags the red carpet from the closet and unrolls it as he heads upstairs. When done, Leo walkie-talkies the kitchen, announcing that the contingent has arrived. The doorbell rings. Leo turns on the misters, buttons his blazer, flattens his hair, opens the door to two dark-suited men wearing sunglasses. Leo nods and steps aside.
The men conduct their security sweep of the cellar and the ground floor. Leo informs them that his wife is sleeping upstairs, a statement that only reminds them that they need to check the second floor as well. Twenty minutes later, two more besuited men, one obese with a graying mustache, enter the house. “Welcome back,” Leo says to the large man—the player for tonight’s game. The client acknowledges Leo with a guttural squawk, and he and his security team trample the rug, leaving hefty clods of dirt in their wake as they head downstairs.
As he follows them into the cellar, Leo pauses over the shoe-prints, sad he’ll have to launder the rug again, before its next use.
There are fewer and fewer game cellars. Secluded locations where the powerful secret away to play for the largest stakes. Should a country end its practice of deliberately undervaluing its currency to narrow its trade deficit with a rival? Should a nation dump its bond holdings to disrupt the economy of another to retaliate for a diplomatic disagreement? Decisions such as these—no matter how intelligent the world leaders or how large and well-educated their group of close advisors may be—are often overwhelming in their ramifications, complexities, pros, cons, and potential unintended outcomes. Many world leaders over the past several decades have chosen to leave these most difficult decisions of geopolitical and economic import to pure chance, the result of a single, simple game. Chess. Backgammon. Scrabble. Why be anxious when we can have fun instead, said one former president who shall remain nameless and whose decision to invade a certain nation under what ended up being false pretenses has since been widely derided. Unfortunately for Leo and his wife Carla, today’s powerful can simply retire to a room in their palace or mansion, log onto the internet, and play a game with a world leader from the comfort of their homes. Leo has even heard of tycoons playing over their phones while on their private jets. Yet, he continues to believe that game cellars offer an unmatched premium experience to the world’s preeminent.
Leo wonders how much longer his game cellar can stay open. The number of experiences has declined 60 percent over the past five years, and government budgets for this sort of thing have shrunk; Leo has been unable to maintain his price point. At the same time, the cost of living in this popular rural vacation town has at least tripled in the past decade. Leo recently let half his staff go, which makes for longer days and less time to take care of Clara, who suffers from advanced multiple sclerosis quietly upstairs in their home, which has been in her family since the 1700s. During the good years, back in the 1980s and 90s, Leo and Clara lived well. Now, he’s fearful that this game might be one of the cellar’s last.
How does one get into the game cellaring business? You marry into it. Leo, who had been an All-American offensive lineman at Dartmouth, met Clara, a Wellesley girl, during a party after his senior day. She had dark brown hair, eyes so blue they sometimes made Leo feel vertiginous, and she was a swimmer. She grew up on a farm and loved nature, like Leo, especially bird watching, and most importantly, she was also a Christian Scientist. She was not the type of woman to speak meek-voiced, a trait Leo very much liked. She couldn’t have walked out of Leo’s dreams more perfectly formed. She was far more than he felt he deserved. They had three children, all grown and successful professionals now. He and Clara have always felt like the beneficiary of a fortunate life path blessed upon them by the Infinite Mind.
Clara’s father started running the game cellar out of this house shortly after World War II. He once told the story of a certain president so wracked with doubt that none of the staff made eye contact with him or saw him smile during his full day in the game cellar. He lost at chess to a certain leader of his defense department, an outcome that led to an escalation of a certain war that was never officially named as such in the late 1960s.
“They stayed upstairs that night,” said Clara’s father. “The next morning, he and the defense secretary came down, and we made them a nice breakfast, and while they sipped Fresca, the president sat back and crossed his legs, and we saw him smile for the first time.”
Clara, who was just ten, said: “He patted me on the head and said, ‘It’s decided!’ And I won’t feel guilt now because it was only a game.”
The cellar is dark with the exception of the spotlit Scrabble board. The match is about to begin. Leo needs Dana’s technical expertise to patch the link between their location and the corporate headquarters of L______, Inc. Yet another problem with this particular business. A secluded location used to be desirable. Foreign leaders and their staff made special trips to the house, tying their travel to other meetings. But these days, fewer and fewer have time to schedule trips too far afield. Increasingly, they covet the experience without having to make the effort. Thus the video conferencing, a huge expense due to the rurality of their location and the extra network security requirements.
The dignitary is seated in the golden chair, drinking glass-bottled water. His security team is lined up behind him, while Dana works on the link. Leo asks the dignitary whether he’d like anything to eat. Shaped and upholstered like a massive couch cushion, he refuses and mutters he’s trying to diet. Inside, Leo winces. He’s hired an entire catering team for the night. He asks the security guys if they want food. They refuse. The security always refuses. The condensating chafers of fried rice, pasta, poached salmon, roast chicken and sautéed seasonal vegetables such as long beans and chard sit untouched.
The speakers bark feedback for ten solid seconds; everyone in the room flinches and covers their ears. The dignitary shakes his head and sighs. When the sound finally stops, a young man appears on screen. He has a bad case of bedhead and wears a wife-beater. His mustache recalls rat whiskers. He’s not much older than seventeen or eighteen. He’s the son of the CEO of L________, Inc.
“Okay, we’re live,” Dana says.
Leo slides a stool out from beneath the table and takes his place at the game board with the Official Scrabble Dictionary in hand. He’s tonight’s judge.
The board’s edges are gunsilver, its grid sparkling gold. Leo explains the rules hastily, assuming that since they chose the game, both the dignitary and the young man are well aware of how to play. He explains that the audio of this meeting is being recorded to resolve any dispute or disagreements over the results of tonight’s match. He asks the dignitary and the young man to reiterate the stakes of the game.
“Exclusive land rights sans government regulation for the next two decades to the T_______ region of the nation of K________ for the purposes of natural resource exploration,” reads the young man from a notecard. “We will have the right within your nation to do whatever it takes to access the natural resource in the event that it is found. For these rights, we will pay you $8_______ per annum.”
“That is correct,” the dignitary says, taking his notecard out of the breast pocket of his blazer. “If I win,” he reads, “the land and its people will be protected, and the rights for resource exploration will be approved on a case-by-case basis and subject to the rules and regulations of the lands protection agency of my nation.”
“That is correct,” the young man says.
Leo nods. “Then let the game begin.”
The dignitary reaches into the burgundy sack and places tiles on the tray, levitating his elbows as he rearranges the letters. The first word he places is “LEGAL.” Leo writes “9” on the score pad. He calls out the number and reminds the young man to place the tiles on the remote location Scrabble board Leo has shipped to him.
The young man remarks that his father, the chief executive of L_________, Inc., was once a Scrabble champion. He places the letters and pans his webcam down so all the participating parties can see: “I,” “L,” and “T” under the “G.”
“As in the guilt you should feel for not taking the opportunity to forfeit now and take L______’s offer as is,” the young man says.
The dignitary turns to his security, utters something in their native language, and the foursome laugh heartily.
Leo places the tiles on the board, without correcting the young man regarding the definition of the word “gilt.” Not his job to prove he’s smarter than his clients. And these clients are regulars (though this is the first time they’ve played Scrabble), and also, bad gambling addicts. During his last visit, the dignitary admitted to using offshore accounts to fund hundreds of sports wagers per week.
The dignitary scoots closer to the table and examines the board. The players decided not to use the timer, so the game might last hours. In the judge’s chair, Leo has his hand on the dictionary at the ready, and he ponders how he can make Clara more comfortable as her symptoms worsen. The headaches, weakness in the arms and legs, the hand tremors. She has trouble seeing now. Perhaps Leo can move these large flat screens upstairs when they aren’t being used for games so she can at least enjoy her TV shows. The dignitary motions to one of his men and whispers in his ear. The young man stands and all they can see on the webcam is his midsection. He’s wearing boxers. The young man tugs at an erection and re-seats himself.
One of the security men palms Leo’s shoulder and says that the dignitary would now like Kobe beef. Leo explains that they don’t have Kobe beef and asks the dignitary if he would like American Wagyu. The dignitary shakes his head and exchanges a disgusted look with the young man on the screen.
Leo says that he’ll do what he can. He equips his earpiece and asks Dana to see if she can find a supermarket in town selling Kobe beef.
When he handed the business over, Clara’s father warned Leo and Clara against thinking too much about the stakes on the table or rooting for one client over another.
“It helps to have hobbies,” Clara’s father said. He loved knitting, caring for stray animals, and tending to his vegetable garden. Because of everything he saw on the job, he stopped voting.
Leo and Clara also didn’t vote, but they were conservationists who helped local groups raise funds to protect wildlife reserves from development. They used to bike often to nearby nature parks and spend hours watching and chronicling the birds they saw together. They know the difference between a house finch and a tufted titmouse. Once a year, they used to take a vacation to New York City just to watch the birds in Central Park. Their nature trips helped keep their minds off what they were privy to, the major shifts in the winds of history that adversely affect millions, sometimes hundreds of millions of people.
Now that Clara is ill, there are no trips or bike rides. Only survival. And the knowledge that the players downstairs these days care much less about the people their decisions affected than when Leo and Clara took over the family business.
He wishes Clara was in the game cellar with him now, like she used to be, so they can exchange knowing smirks about the players and the stakes. They would root together for the young man to lose, a bias that only the two of them would ever know. A shared secret between lovers.
After several turns, it becomes evident that neither man knows how to play Scrabble.
The young man insists on tiling the biggest words related to economics. Occasionally, he has high score turns on words like “profits,” “growth,” and “supply.” But he agonizes for up to an hour over terms that are impossible or illegal to play. He wants to play acronyms like “ROI” and “GDP” even if he has no consonants, and add to words like “expend” to make “expenditure.” The dignitary is visibly hungering for his Kobe beef. He plays words like “juicy” and “stake” (when he means “steak”).
Leo tries not to squirm. His back aches. Both he and Clara turn 70 this year. He never imagined their old age would be like this: working ever harder for so much less. There was a time when it seemed, with regards to these games, that one side or the other might claim to be the victor, but no matter the result, a good number of people would benefit. Not anymore. These days, the result of the game rarely mattered. The winner won millions and billions, the loser would win and lose nothing, while the people affected would lose no matter the outcome.
The young man skips a turn, complaining about the luck of the letter draw.
The dignitary places the word “TILE.” Double Letter Score “E.” “Six,” Leo says, jotting on the scoresheet. Leo tallies that the young man is still ahead by twenty points.
Looking at his letters, the CEO’s son chews his thumbnail. “F-F-Z-P-H-S-S,” he says aloud.
“You’re not supposed to tell us your letters,” Leo says.
The young man chews his thumb harder, until mouth, skin, and nail make a dull, wet sound. He pulls the finger out from between his lips, and a moist sliver of saliva stretches, then disappears.
“You don’t know anything,” says the CEO’s son. “My dad taught me this game. I told you already that he was a Scrabble champion!”
“You shouldn’t give him advice,” the dignitary says to Leo. “You want him to win.”
“I never root for a player.”
“Why don’t you have Kobe beef?” the dignitary shouts. “Every American restaurant has Kobe!”
Leo repeats that he does not care who wins and reminds the dignitary that his associate is out on a quest for Kobe beef. “I apologize for the disruption. I am only here to provide a fun and luxurious experience. Please, play on.”
“Maybe you should have a stake in this game,” the young man says. “We’re important people, and you sit here and judge us? We didn’t come here to be judged. We came here to turn stress into fun.”
“And I’m very hungry now!” the dignitary bellows.
“I think you should take a side, and we’ll play one turn for you,” the young man says. “Isn’t that what you want? You want us to play for you, for your entertainment, like monkeys?”
The dignitary guffaws. “Yes, yes, like the monkeys!”
Leo wipes his brow. A dissatisfied client (or two, in this case) is never good, but especially so now. He’s already spent the corporation’s non-refundable deposit on Clara’s medical bills. He thinks of all the bills the rest of the fee will pay.
“Please resume,” Leo says. “I am merely here to be of service.”
“Let’s re-state the stakes,” the young man says. “State them, or we won’t pay.” To the dignitary, he adds, “Am I right?”
“Yes, yes, like the monkeys!”
Leo exhales, just wants the game to finish soon. “Fine,” he says. He takes the dignitary’s side and blurts that if the dignitary wins, L_________, Inc. will be required to pay double the fee for the game. Leo is certain this will get the young man to back down.
“And I get Kobe beef!” the dignitary shouts.
“And if you lose,” the young man says. “L___________, Inc. pays nothing.”
Leo squeezes his eyes shut. If he loses, he won’t make his bills this month. “We can’t do that,” he says.
The young man shrugs. “Then win.”
Leo turns to the dignitary. “Surely, you must understand, I can’t afford to have you play for free.”
“I agree we double the nothing!” the dignitary says. “The greater the prize, the harder you try to win! What a rush! What a country America is to allow such freedom!”
“Please,” Leo says.
“Then we agree,” says the young man.
“We agree!” the dignitary repeats, pointing to Leo. “No win, no pay for you.”
“One turn for Mr. Judgmental.”
“No,” Leo says. “I do not agree.”
“The two official players have agreed on the terms,” the young man states.
Leo feels himself hollow. How can he stop this? The dignitary smiles. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I will win. I am born winner. Ask my people.” He stares at his tiles and shows them to Leo. P-L-T-C-U-I-E. Tip, put, cut. He held the “P” and rotated it. He tried to play “T-L-I-T-I-P.”
“Like the steak!”
“Tri-tip is spelled with an R,” Leo says.
“You don’t even look at dictionary!” the dignitary shouts.
The young man cackles on screen. Leo looks up the word and shows it to the dignitary, who harrumphs. Eventually, “PUT” is played for seven measly points.
Leo stands. “If you won’t pay what you’ve promised, the game ends now and you can get out of my house.”
The dignitary makes a noise between a roar and a groan. One of the security guards wraps a thick arm around Leo’s neck. Blood rushes to his head, and he begins to have trouble breathing.
“Okay, okay!” the dignitary says to the guards. After he’s released, Leo lowers himself onto his stool and catches his breath.
“When we come back next year, we pay,” the dignitary says. “You are like my wives! I am dignitary! Talk to me like important man! I am very hungry!” The young man tiles “ZYGOTE” over a Triple Word Score, and with only a few spaces remaining, there’s nothing the dignitary or Leo can do. The dignitary doesn’t seem bothered by the loss. A guard hands him a phone and the dignitary reports to someone that he lost the game. The conversation is in a foreign language, but in English, he says, “The revenue will be good.” The young man is on the phone with the executives at L________, Inc. regarding plans to drill for oil near a major water supply. He brags that he played so well that the game is free.
It’s past midnight, and the screen is black. The dignitary and his contingent are gone. There’s still much to do. Leo has to roll up the rug, bind it, and put it in his truck so he can get it to the cleaners tomorrow after he drives Clara to her neurologist’s appointment. He puts away the Scrabble board, cleans the table, and refrigerates the unopened bottles of water. Dana calls and says that she’s finally found a butcher with Kobe beef at $300 per pound and is on her way back with ten pounds.
“The guy seems like he’s going to be a big eater,” says Dana.
Leo doubles over, shaking his head while still holding the phone to his ear. He sits at the bottom of the staircase. In the silence downstairs, he can hear the news on TV upstairs in Clara’s bedroom. A government sending troops somewhere. Another accused of mass torture. A city has had no potable water for a year. In America, Congress simply couldn’t. Pass laws. Help people. Right wrongs. Solve problems.
When Clara calls out his name, Leo wordlessly ascends, abiding.