Forget about meaning and self-expression and trying to convey the mysteries of the human heart: Scrabble players know that words have only one useful function, and that’s to rack up points. Love might be nice in the real world, but LOVE is surely a lousy move unless you’re trying to choke off the board in a closely fought endgame; SEX is probably just a waste of an S. With MARRIAGE, at least, you play all seven letters.
The odds are high that you know what I’m talking about. More than 100 million Scrabble sets have been sold since the ’50s, when the deceptively simple word game invented by an out-of-work architect caught hold of the national imagination. After poker, bridge, and chess, Scrabble is now the most popular “mind game” in the United States, and countless Americans play it in cafes and parks, in the back seats of cars, and around living room tables across the country, wrestling with unwieldy combinations of letters like AEMOUUV in a desperate bid to make words. But only a very few play it like the brilliant oddballs and demented misfits Stefan Fatsis portrays in Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Playerswhich is to say virtually nonstop.
Fatsis, a sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal, went looking for the best players in the country because he wanted to become one himself. What he found was a twilight zone of obsession and genius, a subculture of linguistic brainiacs, the Michael Jordans of the gamewho live and breathe words like OUGUIYA and ZOEAS, and pass their hours ceaselessly flipping anagrams in their minds, changing POLITICS into PSILOTIC and then COLPITIS. Many of them are terminally unemployed and of dubious hygiene. All of them have devoted their lives to mastering the game.
Take “G.I. Joel” Sherman, the 1997 national champion who earned his nickname not from his take-no-prisoners, commando-style play, but from his incessant symphony of belches and farts, the result of chaotic living and a horrific catalog of gastrointestinal disorders. The 30-something Sherman still lives in the basement of his family home, hasn’t held a job in years, and spends every day playing the game on CD-ROM and e-mailing Einstein-level analyses of past tournament matches for the underground network of fellow Scrabblers. He sleeps about four hours a night. He is disturbed by the presence of ants. He wins the crown by besting Matt Graham, a sometime professional comic who lives almost entirely on a diet of “smart drugs” such as glutamine and DMAE-H3 to improve his mental performance and plays every tournament match clutching his lucky stuffed manatee. “This basically validates my existence,” Sherman says after copping the title. “I’m not kidding.”
Fatsis had little idea what he was getting into when he set out to master the game. Armed with an above-average vocabulary and some experience playing friends and family, he quickly found out he was merely what is known derisively as a “living- room player.” Just as pro football, say, has become a game of specialists, in which today’s technical abilities far surpass those of earlier generations of players, competitive Scrabble is now dominated by freaks of nature like G.I. Joel and Graham, who have both an uncanny natural ability to see the anagrams in unlikely combination of letters and a superhuman desire for success on the Scrabble board that crowds out any hope of a relatively normal existence. Joe Edley, widely considered the greatest player of all time and one of the more stable characters Fatsis comes across, worked as a night watchman for years just so he could be free to study anagrams and memorize the dictionary for all the words that are good. (There are 21,674 seven-letter words alone.) He practices tai chi because he believes breath control is crucial to victory. He spent five months sleeping rough under a California bridge to conquer his “fears.”
Born in 1899, Alfred M. Butts invented Scrabble after getting sacked by his architectural firm in the wake of the Great Depression. Butts thought a new game could be a useful distraction from the national malaise. He found inspiration in an Edgar Allan Poe short story in which the main character solves a riddle by figuring out which letters occur most frequently in the construction of words. Lexiko, as he called it, was born.
Butts and his wife made the sets themselves after getting rejected by the big games companies. Then came entrepreneur James Brunot, who wanted a sideline that would allow him to work from home. Butts, frustrated that the game had not taken off, signed a royalty deal with Brunot, who tinkered with the ruleshe added the 50-point bonus for playing a “bingo,” or using all seven tiles at once, and moved the bonus squares around on the board Butts designedand changed the name to Scrabble. Brunot started mass production in 1948.
Nobody knows exactly what happened next. Brunot and his wife, who were selling only about 200 games a week by 1952, went away on holiday. They returned to find orders for more than 2,500 sets. Within a year, demand was topping 10,000 per week and the Brunots were taking mass orders from Macy’s. Igor Stravinksy was photographed playing Scrabble at home in Hollywood. Britain’s Queen Mum bought a deluxe set when she came to visit New York. An overwhelmed Brunot licensed Scrabble to Selchow & Righter (which eventually went out of business in the ’80s, after getting overextended by the popularity of a quirky game it manufactured called Trivial Pursuit).
Fatsis paints an excellently depressing portrait of how the suits have continually failed to grasp the enduring fascination of the game, which is now owned by toys behemoth Hasbro. (While hard-core players were apoplectic over changes to the official dictionary, one toy-company executive proposed a Hard Rock Cafe version, in which players would score extra points by spelling out the names of rock stars.) As Fatsis notes, Scrabble is the only game at the level of chess or bridge that is actually owned by a proprietor, leaving players subject to corporate greed and whimsy. Sponsorship has been spotty, and to this day, the national championship brings no more than a $25,000 top prize, although the company takes in an estimated $25 million from Scrabble every year. In 1993, politically correct do-gooders used the threat of negative publicity to pressure Hasbro into purging words such as HONKIE and WETBACK from the official book of acceptable plays. Nearly 170 were expunged, including FATSO, TURD, and PAPIST, although all are still validthe players say “good”in tournament play.
Marlon Hill, a cantankerous genius from Baltimore and the only African-American ever to finish in the money in the Nationals (he came in second several years ago), works odd jobs when he feels like it and rails biliously against the oppression of the Man in his unpublished manifestoes. Fatsis befriends Graham and Hill and becomes as obsessed as they are, patiently memorizing the 91 two-letter and nearly 1,000 three-letter wordsmere baby steps on the road to Scrabble expertiseand devoting uncountable hours to “anagramming,” in which one person calls out a list of letters and the others must find the word (or words) in a matter of seconds. Their abilities are mind-boggling. Graham says A-C-E-I-O-P-R-R-S-T, and Hill replies instantly: TETRASPORIC. Graham and Fatsis shout him down, saying the word’s no good. Hill eventually comes up with TRICERATOPS. But that still doesn’t stop him from calling the other two later, in the middle of the night, with an in-your-face announcement: “I’m calling all of y’all. TETRASPORIC is goooood.” He looked it up.
Fatsis doesn’t try to explain the weird obsession that has produced people like Marlon Hill and Joel Sherman, or even the legions of foreign players who barely speak any English but have memorized most of the words. (Fatsis ends the book with an account of his own shot at glory in the 2000 Nationals, three years after he first got serious about the game.) Of course there isn’t any explanation. They are simply driven by the illusory dream of mastery, of perfection and greatness and being the best at somethingor, if not the best on any given night, at least being good. CP