Word Freak

Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players
by Stefan Fatsis

My favorite game is Scrabble. But I play it casually compared to the people in this book. The author is a reporter who took an assignment to write about Scrabble tournaments. Enjoying the game himself as a \”living room player,\” he quickly became an insider in the odd subculture of Scrabble fanatics. Hung out with the \”parkies\” in New York City, went to Scrabble clubs, learned from some of the best how to study word lists, and worked his way up to the level of the pros.

So the book is a mix of descriptive journalism and personal endeavor to master the game, character studies on some of the top players (fairly eccentric people), history of the game itself (invented during the Depression by a guy named Albert Butts- that chapter was really interesting), involvement of the two companies that own rights to the game, how Scrabble tournaments are conducted, difference between acceptable words in American and British English, arguments between players about acceptable words and best methods of study, and so on.

Early on I realized that making notations of all the curious words I don\’t know that cropped up in the book, was really bogging me down and squelching the enjoyment of reading it. All the words used in games described in the book (or in verbal word-games played by people as part of their study) are in all-caps, so it was easy to thumb back through afterwards and jot them down. I ended up with a sheet of notebook paper filled with four columns of words on each side. And that\’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the lists of words serious players work at learning (many of which are no longer included in any extant dictionary- having fallen out of use long ago). I\’m just curious what they mean, I don\’t think I\’ll ever seriously study up on lists like the pros in this book do.

Reading about the tournaments and worldwide competitions was pretty intriguing. It\’s not the same now, with online versions of the game that let you immediately look things up. During the time period Fatsis describes, word lists were tediously worked out by hand, serious top-level players poring through the dictionaries to compile them. The kind of mental gymnastics people play with anagrams, finding letter combinations and learning strategies to make the best play based on probabilities are beyond me. I never write down my racks throughout a whole game to study missed possibilities later, or play games against myself for practice. But the book didn\’t spoil it for me either (I already knew I\’m not that good): after finishing the read I invited my teen daughter to play a round of Scrabble, and it was just as fun as ever.

Rating: 3/5                372 pages, 2001

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