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Thursday, November 15, 2001

Book Reviews

Glory. Glory. Glory. I want that Glory

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players by Stefan Fatsis. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 372 pages, 2001, $25.00.

Word Freak is a surprising book because, although it is about Scrabble, it is a compulsive page-turner. Stefan Fatsis hooks you on Scrabble as he in turn is hooked; as he enters the Scrabble scene, he takes you with him. His mission is to become a competitive Scrabble player and to write about his experience. He is a very good writer, and the book sweeps one along through his upward trajectory from being a player who is not “rated” to a 761 rating to expert status. Whatever Scrabble triggers in Stefan Fatsis (and it becomes an obsession), he triggers in his readers. On more than one occasion, one’s heart races as our hero ponders a play and ultimately wins or loses. It took Stefan Fatsis about three years, and thousands of hours of Scrabble-playing, to achieve “expert” status, and, as one Scrabble player tells him, “It’s like going down to a golf club never having played and becoming a five handicap. Really impressive.” Another applauds him at the end, “You did the work.”

Stefan Fatsis took a leave of absence from his job as a sportswriter for The Wall Street Journal to write this book. He had played Scrabble a few times, as well as chess and other innocuous board games. He has memories of summers on the Greek island of Chios playing backgammon, which, he notes, is a game that he is good at, but nothing in his background anticipates the effect that writing this book on Scrabble would have on him.

It is quite an odyssey. He journeys from “pick-up” games in Washington Square Park, where he is a “newbie,” to his first competition, in which he is unrated. He then goes from a rating of 761 after his first competition to Division I or “expert,” and a rating of 1733 after three years. What is more telling and why this book is such a compulsive read, however, is that while he records the eccentricities of the top Scrabble players, he quickly finds himself as obsessed as the best of them. Along the way, he notes, “I seem to be approaching both Scrabble expertise and Scrabble neurosis in lockstep.”

Word Freak chronicles Fatsis’s entry into Scrabble-playing as an outsider at the outset, just a journalist writing a book, and then records his gradual assimilation into the world of Scrabble. Fatsis describes the top Scrabble players honestly and affectionately, and he tells us who teaches him what. He has several mentors who teach him a number of skills: from actual printed word-lists for methodical memorization to strategy and mind control. He details all his studying to improve his game, which includes intense, mammoth feats of rote memorization. He learns to keep track of the letters and to record his games.

The descriptions of his mentors, co-Scrabble-players, and friends are absorbing. He introduces us to some of the greats and their idiosyncrasies. Joe Edley is Fatsis’s mentor, or, as he puts it, “the ideal Scrabble swami.” Edley tells him, “The best players are focused on the goal of winning. Because all else becomes less important. Every other behavior is extraneous. Every behavior you display while you play should be the focus of winning. Otherwise, why are you there?” He teaches, or rather tries to teach, Fatsis not to whine, and to take responsibility for everything, even the luck of the letters. He implies that they are one’s destiny.

Another Scrabble-player, G. I. Joel, is severely asthmatic, lactose-intolerant, and has physical “tics” he is also a Bronx High School of Science graduate and, according to Fatsis, “Mr. Scrabble.” “Joel once played hundreds of games against Maven (a computer Scrabble game) in which he allowed the computer to select his moves for him in an effort to determine whether Maven ‘cheats’ in its tile assignments (by giving itself better letters, as some conspiracy theorists suspect).”

Then there is Matt Graham. He takes so many “supplements” (smart pills, vitamins, etc.) that he suffers from occasional paranoia. At one point, he misses lunch to sit in a car and listen to the rock group Cake (which Fatsis does not mention has been known to perform with a bookshelf as its main stage prop). Fatsis comments, “Hanging around with Matt makes me wonder whether Scrabble isn’t a substitute for work, for ambition, for confronting the realities of life….I feel it myself now, too: I’d need to be strapped to a mast like Odysseus to avoid the siren song of a Scrabble board.”

There is an interesting chapter on Alfred Mosher Butts, the inventor of Scrabble, and a short account of the two toy companies that own the rights to the game: Hasbro in America and Mattel overseas. There is also an excellent bibliography – don’t forget to put Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies That Make Them on your holiday wish-list. And there is a wonderful chapter, “The Words,” in which Fatsis discusses words that are “words,” that is, acceptable Scrabble words.

All of the above would have made Word Freak a very good book. It is the way that Fatsis uses this game as a kind of therapy, however, and how he describes what is going on in his head, that makes this so much more than a book about Scrabble. It could have been entitled, “Portrait of Obsession.” Fatsis soon starts to play and replay Scrabble games, and to berate himself for missed opportunities. He starts to lose sleep over the game – and when he can sleep, he dreams about Scrabble.

He describes how he “chokes“ and analyzes why: “It recalled childhood snubs and competitive fears, the words of an editor who on a job interview lumped me favorably with the ‘insecure overachievers’ the paper liked to hire. Scrabble gave me a place to address my ‘issues’ off of a therapist’s couch. Recognition, expertise, validation – not to mention strategy, tactics, words, and winning – all turned out to matter more than I had imagined…and all turned out to be attainable.” Perhaps it is the book’s intimacy, or that one ends up really knowing – and liking – Stefan Fatsis, or the fact that it takes an addictive personality to know another one, but whatever it is, this is an addictive book.

And it is fun: Fatsis can laugh at himself and the fanaticism of the Scrabble expert. At the end of the book, he includes an appendix of words that are not words, or rather words that are unacceptable in Scrabble. Note well that most of the words he learned over three years, and most of the words in Scrabble, are not what you and I would consider words.

This review must end with the caveat included by Fatsis in his epilogue. After finishing his book, he competes in a Scrabble tournament, but his rating drops to 1694, which leads him to write, “It’s a number I can’t live with.” He starts studying Scrabble words again; he is truly hooked, truly obsessed. He is defined by his Scrabble rating. Word Freak tells us why.

Natasha Prenn teaches Latin at The Bronx High School of Science.
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