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and Julian Petrillo

One scene in Word Wars perfectly demonstrates competitive Scrabble’s place in the world: During a tournament, a couple of players pull out a board in the hallway of their hotel, get on the floor, and replay the key moves from a hotly contested game. Suddenly, they bust out laughing, in hysterics over an inside joke about tiles. A few feet away, a bride in full gown and train looks over her shoulder and grimaces, disdainful that these board-game enthusiasts even exist. Scrabble isn’t cool like poker or cute like a spelling bee; Scrabble is…well, just a board game. Indeed, the four top Scrabble players profiled in this documentary all live in that special ghetto reserved for geniuses who devote their lives to something that most consider inconsequential. Matt

Graham is an herbally enhanced stand-up comedian with a pierced chin and a gambling problem. Marlon Hill smokes weed and beds hookers during tournaments. “G.I.” Joel Sherman got his nickname on account of his gastrointestinal disorder. And Joe Edley, the resolutely nerdy No. 1 player in the world, performs tai chi before matches. The professional Scrabble circuit, in which a tournament winner might pull down a couple thousand dollars, is less a venue for people who want to win, it seems, than one for people who just can’t help themselves: In one scene, Matt challenges Joel to a best-of-50 match for $1,000 but quits due to exhaustion; then he asks if Joel might want to play another couple of games just for fun. Though directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo do a commendable job with the film’s pacing, lingering over tile-packed game boards without inducing boredom, their film ultimately fits the wacky-documentary mold so well that its zaniness seems formulaic. Weird subculture? Check. Subjects with no sense of perspective? Check. Character development or any other kind of transformation? No way. Compared with its obvious antecedent, 2002’s Spellbound, Word Wars just isn’t instructive or suspenseful. No matter what the outcome of the final tournament, it’s clear that these guys will just keep playing Scrabble for the rest of their lives. —Josh Levin