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Word Freak

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sunday “Books” section, July 22, 2001.


Among word lovers, no childhood recollection is complete without an account of the family Scrabble game. In our house, the brown, rectangular box would tumble from the upper shelf of our closet, spilling all one-hundred tiles. The cover would flip over, revealing rules that were briefly admired, but rarely observed. Then all bets were off: My mother would squirrel tiles into her pocket; I would “braille” for letters I needed; my brother would hum the theme song to Jeopardy to hasten a turn; and my father would threaten to quit every time a word he challenged invariably appeared in the The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. “That’s not English!” he would curse -- his keen ear for language violated by words whose very hideousness earned us an extra 50 points, each time we cleared our racks with a seven-letter “bingo.”

Years later, as a more honest, but no-less-ardent Scrabble player, I moved to Baltimore. I was eight months pregnant, with neither job, friends, nor family. The sight of a white, 8 by 10-inch sign, Scrabble, Tuesday Night, taped to the window of a burger joint, made my heart soar. I sought the camaraderie of my fellow word-lovers and, though I planned to return, Tuesday after Tuesday, I never did.

Thanks to Stefan Fatsis’s, Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble, I now know why.

“Organized, competitive, tournament Scrabble differs from the game played at home,” Fatsis explains at the outset. A twenty-three -page rule book governs every aspect of the game -- from how to select tiles (the bag containing them must be held at eye level or higher) to what to do when a player needs to use the bathroom (Rule IIP). What’s more, competitive Scrabble isn’t just about the rules. It’s about the players who abide by them. As such, Word Freak is filled with the kind of players I met in Baltimore -- anagramming, bingo-brainy, list-memorizing, social misfits.

Fatsis hatched his plan to play competitive Scrabble on New Year’s Day, among friends. He had broken up with his girlfriend, blown out his knee, and seeking “a hobby”, he challenged the executive director of the National Scrabble Association, Johns D. Williams, Jr. , to a game. Fatsis ended up beating Williams, 457 to 277. Weeks later, during a rematch, Williams trounced him 502 to 291, dubbing Fatsis “a good living room player.” Though intended (and received) as a compliment, they proved to be fighting words. In the course of Word Freak, Fatsis, a Wall Street Journal sports reporter, NPR regular, and author of Wild and Outside, begins as an unrated player and ends up as the 180th best player in North America.

Most Scrabble players will enter this book as I entered that game, years ago, in Baltimore -- as unrated, word-loving, “living room players” (thirty million American households own Scrabble). Accordingly, readers wishing to enjoy Word Freak should dismiss any notion that Fatsis will satisfy word lovers who thrill to The Story of English, Wordstruck, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or O Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun.

Nor does Fatsis plumb any relationships strained by a natural gift for games – as Fred Waitzkin did regarding his son’s prodigious talent for chess in Searching for Bobby Fisher (and the movie, almost impossibly, improved upon). Neither is Word Freak a curious, one-of-a-kind story about a barking-mad benefactor to humanity, as was Dr. W.C. Minor in The Professor and the Mad Man.

And, though Fatsis compares his journey to those of George Plimpton , Word Freak is not quite that, either.

Word Freak is less about words and more about game after game played with, well, why not say it, freak after freak. Though Fastis tries to count himself among the freaks, he can’t possibly compete with the sometimes clinically-elite, DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) company he keeps.

“Scratch the surface of any champion in any individual sport,” Williams explains to Fatsis, “and you’re often going to find an obsessed misfit who’s deficient in many parts of his life,”

Fatsis manages to find all of them and describes each one with consummate journalistic brio.

There’s Matt Graham, who, according to a Scrabble colleague is “Just one chromosome up from the guy in Silence of the Lambs.” When playing Fatsis, he’s developed a nasty habit of dipping his finger in a jar of Vicks, smearing it under his nose, and insisting that menthol helps him “recall.” He even considers renting a portable oxygen tank for the 2000 Nationals tournament in Rhode Island.

“He’s been listening to a CD called Tune Your Brain with Mozart,” Fatsis writes of Matt’s pre-tournament regimen, “The ‘alpha wave’ selections (including “Divertimento in B-flat Major, Fourth Movement Adagio”) supposedly help one concentrate and improve retention. Beta-wave cuts (“Sonata for Piano and Violin in B-flat Major, Third Movement, Allegretto”) are designed for quick thinking and working at peak energy.”

There’s Richie Lund, a Vietnam Vet, and Washington Square Park player, whose first tattoo, after quintuple bypass surgery, was of Bruce Lee. He now bears Gladiatrix, after Hajime Suriyama, on his left forearm; the baby orangutan, Cookie, by Donald Roller Wilson, on his left arm; Rousseau’s The Dream, his favorite painting, on his back; and his own adaptation of the exploding-head poster from the movie, Brazil (Richie’s head takes the place of Jonathan Pryce’s), with Scrabble tiles flying out of his crown.

G.I. Joel, whom Fatis sometimes bunks with before tournaments, owes his eponymous name to lactose intolerance, food allergies and gastro esophageal reflux. He confides to Fatsis that he would have liked to be a singer, and to go on Letterman and talk about Scrabble. At one point, he sits down at a nearby baby grand and “ belts out a deep, nasally, vibrato that makes all of his colleagues stop and listen.” “Joel, tiny Joel,” Fatsis observes, “hammering away at the keys, exorcising his demons, now at the piano as ever before over a bunch of letters, exposing himself without fear or shame, with joy. G.I. Joel is singing Billy Joel. You may be right, he croons, I may be crazy.”

Maybe. Because “Without Scrabble,” another player tells Fatsis, “ I’d be doing serious time in the hospital.”

Fatsis asks his petrie dish colony of Scrabble-playing humans why they happen to be so good at the game: “It’s called A.D.D.” Matt replies, “You need something that seems like a life project but you can resolve it in five seconds.”

As a writer, Fatsis does the just the opposite. He takes the dramatic equivalent of five seconds of material and tries to resolve it into a compelling, book-length story with the heft and drama of a life project. And herein lies the major shortcoming of Word Freak. It’s not that Fatsis has not done an extraordinary job with the material at hand, it’s more that, in the end, we’re talking about Scrabble. And Fatsis fails to engage us on the level he understands so well -- his tale lacks both the drama and the humanity of a first-rate sports story.

Word Freak begins in Washington Square Park, where Fatsis, our guide, tells us, “In places like the park, I’m learning it (Scrabble) also involves the narcotic allure of strategic games and the beauty of the English language.”

At first, Fatsis is unrated, then, during his sabbatical from the Wall Street Journal, he climbs in the National Scrabble Association’s rating from 761 to 1735 (ratings are based on the Elo system used for chess tournaments: 500 at the bottom; 2000 at the top). The book’s chapter titles are often numbers, indicating Fatsis’s current rating; they are intercut, rather than dramatically organized, with the names (and subsequent character sketches) of colleagues he meets at tournaments.

Along the way, Fatsis makes occasional pilgrimages -- to Scrabble-inventor Alfred Butte’s house or to a Scrabble factory -- and offers fascinating bits of the game’s history. Scrabble’s primary construction is the anagram, he tells us, “a word or phrase that is formed by transposing the letters of another word or phrase.” Thirteenth century Jewish mystics first used them, Fatsis explains: “In Hebrew, the letters in the name ‘Noah’ formed ‘Grace,’ while ‘Messiah’ became ‘he shall rejoice.’”

Despite his richly-observed journey, Fatsis fails to build a convincing dramatic structure. He resorts, instead, to the only literary tool he has left -- a narration so pumped up it might better serve as voice-over for a documentary film.

“I sense that the very physiology of my brain has changed,” Fatsis writes toward the end of his tournament training, “To find out why and how, I call Larry Squire, a professor of psychiatry, neurosciences, and psychology at the University of California School of Medicine in San Diego.”

The problem with relying on Fatis to carry the narration is that, as our guide, he is the least compelling character in the book. And when he resorts to the literary equivalent of narcissistic twinning, Word Freak strikes a false note:

“I wonder whether I’m becoming like Marlon, possessed of a gambler’s addiction…”

“As I drive away from the hotel, I shudder at the realization. I am become Joel: I need this game to validate my existence.”

“Like any addict, I take pains to hide my addiction.”

“I don’t want to end up like them, obsessed with a game. So I take a break.”

With these strained comparisons between himself and his fellow players, rests the whole insincere conceit of journalism -- for Fatsis, unlike his fellow-players, can “take a break.” Three-quarters of the way through the book, Fatsis himself concedes that some Scrabble players “are downright normal people”, yet he has chosen not to write about them “for that very reason.”

He tells us that has learned “how deeply my (his) favorite pastime is connected to real emotion,” but, somehow, that’s precisely what we don’t feel. We know that, in the end, this Ivy-league grad will go back to his chamomile tea, his blueberry muffin, and his well-deserved jobs at two of the most prestigious journalistic institutions in America.

As for the climax, a tournament win for Fatsis, he calls it an “epiphanic moment.” “I finally played the total game,” he writes, “The score didn’t matter. Winning and losing didn’t matter. My rating didn’t matter. All that mattered was exploiting the new synaptic connections in my brain, understanding the puzzle and solving it – in short, thinking like a pro.”

All this gaming adds up to a climax which is largely intellectual – as when, earlier in the book, Ron Tiekert drew a crowd for playing AUBERGINES through three disconnected letters!

In the end, readers might find themselves yearning for the sloppy humanity of a living room game – with brailling, bluffing, humming, egg-timers gone unflipped and, in my brother’s case, carrying his Scrabble rack out of the living room in gleeful violation of Rule IIP.


©2002 by Fabienne Marsh


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