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Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive ScrabblePlayers


Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive ScrabblePlayers

There is a great moment in WORD FREAK when the author, Stefan Fatsis, considers his obsession with Scrabble and wonders if it's healthy. In normal literature, such a moment might be devoted to doomed romance or drug addiction. There's something wonderfully nerdy about the fact that in WORD FREAK it involves a board game. 

Fatsis originally planned to write WORD FREAK as a journalistic account of an odd but harmless subculture. Scrabble was then just another board game in his living room; if writing the book would make him a better player, it was a byproduct hardly worth mentioning. But as Fatsis' interest in Scrabble expanded, he found himself spending more and more time playing, entering more tournaments, practicing more, and making more friends than was strictly necessary to write a book. A year into the project, he took a leave of absence from his job as a sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal and joined the Scrabble tour full-time.

In retrospect, Fatsis' decision was not only incredible, but also inevitable. There are few financial or social rewards for Scrabble expertise --- in fact, there are large disincentives on both fronts --- but like all of his Scrabble friends, Fatsis was drawn to the game for reasons he didn't fully understand. It's a contention of WORD FREAK that players tend to find their proper place, and Fatsis was no exception --- as the book progresses, he becomes an expert player. His only explanation for this strange turn of events is that, at a fundamental level, he always was one. Even when he was playing old ladies in the beginner rounds, he had the need to succeed at Scrabble.

If this sounds like a typical underdog story, it shouldn't. Unlike many books about sports, WORD FREAK isn't a series of big defeats followed by larger triumphs. There are exciting matches, but Scrabble is a game that provides the greatest enjoyment only to those who learn it at an expert level. As a spectator, the distinctions between the historic plays and the merely great ones are impossible to grasp. The uniqueness and complexity of the lifestyle that surrounds the game is the story worth following. This is where WORD FREAK succeeds brilliantly: detailing the intricacies of a subculture whose ardor and strangeness make it remote. 

Fatsis' knowledge of the Scrabble world is hard earned. He lives the game, which is what allows him to explain its eccentricities to the world. Just hearing the bare statistics of the Scrabble life --- the hours spent practicing, the anagramming parties, the tournaments thousands of miles from home in run-down convention halls --- doesn't convey the depth of the obsession. Nor does it help to merely run through the foibles of the game's stars: the stunted social and professional lives, the strange religious beliefs, the alternative medical therapies. The genius of the top players is too subtle and their personalities too easily caricatured for anyone but a peer to see the beauty beneath the absurdity.

Fatsis works hard to be seen as a typical Scrabble player, but he never quite blends in with his peers. His status as a mainstream reporter covering their world makes him a celebrity, and nearly everyone he meets is eager to help him however they can. Of course, their actions aren't entirely charitable. Scrabble players are religious and atheistic, excitable and stoic; they share almost nothing but a desire to see their game become more popular. They realize that the status of a game determines the status of its players, and they see Fatsis' book as a means to boost Scrabble's standing. Their hope is that Scrabble will one day reach the level of esteem that chess enjoys, because although it's widely known that Bobby Fischer is a little bit weird, a Scrabble player might reply, "At least he's known." 

Fatsis is aware of the extra help he receives from the Scrabble world, and he repays it with an ever more fanatical interest in the game. Time after time, he is told to "do the work" if he wants to improve. He does, and he does. Unlike chess, Scrabble has a massive back-catalog of information that must be absorbed before a player can achieve master status. There are hundreds of thousands of Scrabble words in the English language, and playing the game to its full strategic potential means knowing nearly all of them. The only way to learn the lexicon is to memorize it, and Fatsis practices his flash cards on the F train --- words like "spaviet" and "diecious" tend not to come up in day to day conversation.

Early in the book Fatsis decides that WORD FREAK is going to be a personal account rather than a scrupulously fair piece of reporting. Even the stories of the other players are often framed by his quest for their guru-like knowledge. But the inward nature of WORD FREAK is more than just self-gratifying. Fatsis' journey from Scrabble amateur to Scrabble professional is fascinating precisely because it's so personal. His love for Scrabble and his respect for its stars are contagious. Ultimately, WORD FREAK makes the argument that the genius and devotion we honor in more popular pursuits are just as worthy in less popular ones (Scrabble included). That Scrabble experts are neither respected nor rewarded is the central tragedy of WORD FREAK. That they continue anyway is the central triumph.

Reviewed by Fred Kovey on July 30, 2002

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive ScrabblePlayers
by Stefan Fatsis

  • Publication Date: July 30, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0142002267
  • ISBN-13: 9780142002261