Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players by Stefan Fatsis
With the Olympics juggernaut rumbling towards us, it’s timely to remember the arbitrariness of sport and games. If humans are hard-wired to compete for food, territory or whatever, we are almost as susceptible to the quasi-competition of games.
What’s more, at two steps removed from our biological imperatives, following the action as spectators, we can still find ourselves as emotionally involved as the players themselves (ask a football fan).
Stefan Fatsis kept all this in his head but not his heart as he embarked on a three year journalistic enterprise to report on the world of competitive Scrabble - by attempting to become a world class player.
In the process, he got close to a handful of eccentric top players, scraped into the ‘Scrabble Expert’ category briefly and spent many more hours learning obscure words than I’m sure he ever intended when he started the project.
To Scrabble amateurs like me, one of the revelations of Word Freak is that beyond a certain level of expertise, winning is all about learning words – to be precise, all the 267,751 words in the two official Scrabble dictionaries (one used in North America, the other in Europe). But it’s more complicated than that: it’s also about learning anagrams, and especially learning words of more than 7 letters which would allow you to ‘bingo’ – use all the letters in your tray. And don’t even start playing until you know without hesitation, the 124 acceptable two letter words.
Top players, like top athletes, keep in training with huge word lists that they constantly scan. If you doubt it’s as mechanical as that, Fatsis reports that some of the top players in the world, from Thailand and other Asian countries, can’t actually speak English. Knowing what words mean isn’t important, nor even necessarily helpful. What’s helpful is knowing each of the letters that go with any particular group of seven to make an eight letter word.
None of this was intended by Alfred Butts when he invented the game in the 1930’s. Butts was an architect who lost his job in New York City in the Depression and moved upstate. He started manufacturing the game himself, but sales were modest (perhaps because it was then called Lexiko). After rejection by the big toy manufacturerers, it was only after a series of takeovers and accidents that the renamed Scrabble became an American craze in the 1950s. Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera were photographed playing it in their Hollywood home for the New York Times: it was the Angry Birds of its day, except that you couldn’t buy a set because they were all sold out.
Butts refused to take an interest in ‘professional’ Scrabble. With an admirable sense of proportion he appeared to think anyone contemplating learning a dictionary was taking it too seriously. But Wall Street Journal sports reporter Stefan Fatsis became a Scrabble obsessive, and this chronicle of his temporary addiction is fascinating, if sometimes giving almost too vivid an insight into what matters to those who think of little else but Scrabble.
By the end, he is able to report he has got a life again: in fact, he’s acquired a wife and a baby. But his shining of a light onto this obscure world had its effect: following publication of his book, five documentary crews showed up at the 2001 World Scrabble Championship in Las Vegas to capture on film the eccentric world he had reported on.
A couple of weeks ago, I caught the results of one of those film crews’ work, a documentary called Word Wars, which was shown on Sky Arts. Not very beautifully filmed, but seeing the characters I’d read about in Fatsis’ book really brought them to life - I'm sorry Stefan - in a way that the book, with its complicated am-I-just-a-reporter-or-not dilemma hadn’t quite managed for me.
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