In the last few months of her life, my mother made only one request of her hospice nurse: “I’m really bored. Find me a good Scrabble player.” With her take-no-prisoners attitude, she was tough to beat at this game millions of us play. She and I played a lot, reveling in those extra 50 points you get from using all your letters in one turn and gloating when we scored the rare “triple-triple,” where you play a word that spans two triple word score squares. Breaking 400 earned one day of bragging rights. But what we loved most was the sheer pleasure of finding an interesting word lurking in the mish-mash of tiles on our racks. Despite the fact that we thought of ourselves as good players, we were mere pikers, as I learned when I read “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players,” by Stephan Fatsis.
Part reportage, part memoir, this books takes the reader on a two-year journey into the dark underbelly of a game that became a household word 70 years ago and still sells about 160 million sets annually in the United States alone. Fatsis begins his trip as a journalist in 1998, thinking a story about the Scrabble World Championship tournament would make interesting reading – and it does. But everything changes when he plays in a one-day club competition to get a feel for the milieu of professional Scrabble. Turns out, competitive play is addictive, and Fatsis discovers he’s hooked. “Now I want to win, win, win…I want to understand what the pros understand, I want to succeed in a way I’ve never wanted to before,” he realizes. Although he keeps his reportorial wits about him enough to write chapters on the origins, ownership and manufacture of the game, for the most part, “Word Freak” traces the author’s rise from the lowly novice rating of 761 to the rarefied domain of expert players rated 1600 and above.
To serve as his mentors, and to profile in the book, he could have chosen from among the fairly normal expert players who are well-adjusted people with good jobs and ordinary family lives, but what fun would that be? Instead, Fatsis picks a gaggle of guys who are brilliant, to be sure, but who are also truly word freaks: outcasts and social misfits who, for the most part, devote their entire lives to the game. Some don’t work at all, opting to live at home with their parents. Some have never married or are divorced. All have more quirks than sequins on a prom gown.
Among others, we meet G.I. Joel Sherman (G.I. as in gastrointestinal, mind you.), whose illnesses and allergies are legendary; Marlon Hill, an African-American from Baltimore who is always broke, and who once took a 61-hour bus ride to play in a big tournament; Joe Edley, a New-Agey kind of guy who practices yoga and tai-chi so that he can control his breathing during match play; and Matt Graham, a successful stand-up comedian in his other life, who believes the regimen of over 40 vitamins and herbal concoctions he consumes daily sharpens his brain power and gives him a competitive edge. For each of them, winning at Scrabble serves as a validation, their only source of self-esteem, the one thing that gives their lives meaning.
To Graham, winning at Scrabble is all about proving to the world that a high school drop-out is smarter than most. “If you’re really good at this, that’s all that matters,” he explains. For Edley, the game represents “the meaning of life.” Hill, who is actually a very friendly, warm person, says winning is his way “to stick it to the man.” G.I. Joel perhaps best sums up Scrabble as a raison d’etre. “I’m an accidental overachieving underachiever, an unlucky person with a failure complex who somehow managed, once in his life, not to.” As Fatsis says, “They may be mild-mannered geeks or underachieving layabouts, but behind a rack, for fifty minutes, they are stone-faced killers.”
For his part, the author seems to have nothing but contempt for the likes of us – the great unwashed body of what are known as “living room players.” Maybe this is because, unlike us, competitive Scrabble players must master so many skills. Oddly enough, while having a terrific vocabulary is helpful for living room players, it’s not considered essential for competitive play, since that’s more about memorizing acceptable words, rather than understanding their meanings.
In addition to spending untold hours learning the enormous canon of approved Scrabble words, a pro must be great at anagrams – a skill Fatsis says is the essence of the game. Next, you have to be fast. In tournament play, they use punch clocks, the same as in chess, and each player has a total of 25 minutes per game. Go over, and you’ll be penalized 10 points per minute above the time limit. The pros also count tiles, the way good bridge players count cards, so that they know at all times (with the exception of the tiles on their opponent’s rack) what letters remain in the bag. Lastly, you have to be lucky. There’s just no way to guarantee you’ll get a good draw on any given turn. Fatsis says competitive Scrabble is about 30 percent luck. The rest is all about skill, strategy and mind-numbing rote memorization.
After reading “Word Freak,” I’ve realized that I’m more than content to be a living room player who is free to love words for their myriad meanings and to enjoy playing a real dandy in just the right spot. And just in case you wondered, Aa (a kind of lava) and Zyzzyva (a snouted beetle) really are good Scrabble words.