How I became addicted to online word games


The victors had listed all the words I had found, and a splash of letters from Jackson Pollock that was unlike any of the words I’d ever seen: aas, coit and deme; elt, haka and reh; sena, slae and soop. My ranking after that game was something like 60,000 in the world – out of 60,001, I believe. Sneezing and furious, I vowed to defeat them all. Especially Balthazar Tong.

Over the next several weeks, coughing up but not wanting to leave my desk even for a glass of water, I played game after game – until 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 2 a.m. morning, then 4am – only breaking for DayQuil, then NyQuil. Over the hours and days, my cold got worse, a mountain of tissues piled up in my office, and my prolific status increased.

Soon I started keeping an alphabetical list of words that worked and words that didn’t, typing them and making prints, reducing the font so that all the words fit on one page, for preview fast with every lightning turn. After each game, I took a magic marker and jotted down the new words that had appeared, typed them into my list, then reprinted. When my cold turned to bronchitis, I took a break from the game to go to the doctor and collect some Zithromax, then rushed into the 24/7 keyboard fight.

A neighbor, hearing of my illness, stopped with chicken soup and oranges. Observing the pile of tissues on my desk and on the floor, the bundles of crumpled prints next to my keyboard, scrawled with rainbow-colored addenda, she grabbed my wrists. – Liesl, she said. “It sounds like something from ‘A Beautiful Mind’. My ranking was now in the top 1000. If only my friend left, I thought, maybe I could get into the top 500 at dawn. But she lingered. “You need an intervention,” she said. Nodding in mock contrition, I hissed a long, dry cough and promised to put Prolific aside and take a nap. Once she left, I started over.

A few days later, I had a fever of 101, and I was approaching Olympus de Prolific. I always lost to Mr. Tong, but now I beat my other bogeymen: Drasko Spitz, Phuong Soh and Minerva Nelson. When I joined a game with Leander Fishkin, and he took it off as soon as my name appeared on the roster, I rejoiced. I then joined a game with my first Prolific pusher, the TV reviewer, who always saw the game as “fun”. Subsequently, she replied that she would never play with me again. My bronchitis was on the verge of turning into pneumonia, but I was powerless to stop playing.

There was only one way to break the spell, and providentially, it happened in time to keep me out of the emergency room. The prolific King of Kings, Balthazar Tong, joined me. In a way, I beat him. Soaring doves, clicking cymbals, unspeakable feelings of relief. I was free. Within half an hour, I canceled my Prolific account, threw away my printed words and booked a flight to Miami, hoping to recover my health and sanity on the beach, with a stack of novels. I never played Prolific again. I accepted that I was a prolifool.


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