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

Stefan Fatsis
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)

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Product Description

From Amazon

Like a cross between a linguistic spy and a lexicographic Olympic athlete, journalist Stefan Fatsis gave himself a year to penetrate the highest echelons of international Scrabble competition. Word Freak is the account of his journey. It's a wacky grab bag of travelogue, history, party journal, and psychological study of the misfits and goofballs whose lives are measured out in Scrabble tiles.

Fatsis gives us all the facts about Scrabble--from the story of the down-on-his-luck architect who invented the game in the 1930s to the intricacies of individual international competitions and the corporate wars to control the world's favorite word game. He keeps the reader turning the pages as we get involved in the lives of the Scrabble obsessives: men and women who have a point to prove against the world and have chosen Scrabble as their playground and their pulpit. As Fatsis goes on his own quest to attain the coveted 1600 rating, we actually get obsessed with him as he lies awake at night pondering moves and memorizing lists of words. For anybody who is interested in words, Word Freak provides an entertaining and absorbing read. --Dwight Longenecker, Amazon.co.uk

From Publishers Weekly

It takes a special kind of person to be able to rattle off all the words that start with the letter q but don't require a u or to immediately recognize that the same letters used for the word "troutmania" can also spell "maturation" and "natatorium." These talented individuals are the subject of Fatsis's tell-all on the professional Scrabble realm's inner sanctum. The Wall Street Journal sports reporter (and author of Wild and Outside) began simply as a curious journalist but was soon obsessed, befriending dozens of experts in his passage from "living room player" to the continent's 180th (or so) best player. The book entertainingly and admiringly portrays the irreverent crowd that lives, eats and breathes Scrabble, interspersing mini-profiles with updates on Fatsis's progress and historical facts about the game. Among the cast of characters familiar with words like "eloiners" and "loxodrome" are "G.I." Joel Sherman, who directs the Manhattan Scrabble Club despite his dental problems, asthma attacks and lactose intolerance; Matt Graham, a stand-up comedian who let Scrabble fill the void when he got fired from his gig at Saturday Night Live; and Steve Williams, a Harvard grad with psychiatric problems, also the winner of the 1977 New York City championship. Fatsis gives an in-depth Scrabble history, too from portraying Alfred Butts, the game's meticulous Depression-era inventor, to explaining how Hasbro manages to sell over one million sets a year with minimal advertising. Journalistic, expressive prose helps transform this potentially dry account of some word-obsessed oddballs into a funny, albeit vertical, glimpse at one of America's quirkiest special-interest groups. (July 10)Forecast: Are there 25,000 hardcore Scrabble fans out there? Hard to say, but Houghton Mifflin is counting on it, and in order to reach them, the house is taking an NPR sponsorship (Fatsis is an NPR contributor) and sending the author on a six-city tour. He is booked on the Today Show.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

In 1997, when Wall Street Journal reporter Fatsis was casting about for a story, he decided to challenge the head of the National Scrabble Association to a gameAand won. Now he's a top-ranked Scrabble player. Here's the story of how he got there.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Since the game of Scrabble was created in the 1940s, more than 100 million sets have been sold in 121 countries. Because Scrabble requires a unique combination of luck, strategy, and word skills, even "friendly" games can end up in heated battles for "bragging rights." Competitive Scrabble, though, as Fatsis makes clear, is fought at a much higher level of intensity. For example, its rulebook runs 23 pages and includes stipulations for bathroom breaks. Fatsis is a regular commentator for NPR's All Things Considered, and his knowledgeable coverage of sports for the Wall Street Journal is refreshingly entertaining. Several years ago, in search of a story idea, Fatsis challenged the director of the National Scrabble Association to a match. Fatsis won and was hooked. He now describes his own intoxicating rise through the ranks of tournament Scrabble players as he achieves "expert" status. At the same time, Fatsis colorfully portrays the eccentrics and obsessive characters that inhabit the quirky "Scrabbler" subculture. David Rouse
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

"'Word Freak' is a fascinating look into a thriving, cultish world that's best admired from an armchair." (Christian Science Monitor)

"Drama, strategy, controversy, pathos. The rich panorama of emotion. Synchronized swimming? No. Scrabble. Who knew?" --Bob Costas, NBC Sports broadcaster and author of FAIR BALL

"An engrossing, inside look at the strange and rarefied world of competitive Scrabble. It's a pleasure to experience vicariously a level of play that I'll never achieve!" --Will Shortz, New York Times Crossword Editor and Puzzle Master of NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday"

"As they say in the Scrabble world, Fatsis got great tiles when he set out to write this book -- a slew of memorable characters, and a competitive subculture as bizarre as any I've ever seen in sport. I really enjoyed WORD FREAK." --Frank DeFord

From the Back Cover

"Drama, strategy, controversy, pathos. The rich panorama of emotion. Synchronized swimming? No. Scrabble. Who knew?" --Bob Costas, NBC Sports broadcaster and author of FAIR BALL

"An engrossing, inside look at the strange and rarefied world of competitive Scrabble. It's a pleasure to experience vicariously a level of play that I'll never achieve!" --Will Shortz, New York Times Crossword Editor and Puzzle Master of NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday"

"As they say in the Scrabble world, Fatsis got great tiles when he set out to write this book -- a slew of memorable characters, and a competitive subculture as bizarre as any I've ever seen in sport. I really enjoyed WORD FREAK." --Frank DeFord

About the Author

STEFAN FATSIS is a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a regular commentator on NPRs All Things Considered. He has written for the Associated Press, the Village Voice, and P.O.V. magazine and has appeared on Good Morning, America to discuss the 2000 National Scrabble Championship. His first book, Wild and Outside, about minor-league baseball in Iowa, was described as "an altogether balanced, revealing, and enjoyable study" by Kirkus Reviews. In search of a story idea in 1997, Scrabble amateur Fatsis challenged the head of the National Scrabble Association to a game and won. He has since traveled the country playing in Scrabble tournaments and achieved "expert" status, and he currently ranks in the top 10 percent of tournament Scrabble players nationwide.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1 The Park The cops arrive, as they always do, their Aegean blue NYPD cruiser bumping onto the sidewalk and into the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. There are no sirens or flashing lights, but the late- model Buick does emit a staccato bwip-bwip to signal to the public that business is at hand. The drug dealers usually shuffle away, perpetuating the cat-and-mouse game that occurs hourly in this six- acre plot of concrete, grass, dirt, and action in Greenwich Village. The druggies whisper, "Sense, smoke, sense, smoke," as they have for twenty or thirty years, seemingly in tacit agreement with the cops to ply their trade as long as they do it quietly. But now, instead of allowing the dealers to scatter as they normally do, officers in short-sleeved summer uniforms, chests bulging from flak jackets, actually step out of the cruiser, grab a man, and slap on cuffs. "Whats going on?" someone asks. "Theyre arresting a drug dealer." I dont look up. It is a hot, humid, windless Sunday afternoon in August 1997 in New York City, an asphalt-and-concrete circle of hell. The blacktop is thick with urban detritus -- broken glass, bits of yellowed newspaper pages, stained paper coffee cups, dozens upon dozens of cigarette butts. In the southwest corner of the park, hustlers occupying the dozen or so stone tables attempt to lure the unsuspecting. "You need to play chess," one of them announces. Tens and twenties are exchanged and surreptitiously pocketed with a glance over the shoulder. Not that the hustlers need worry; on the scale of petty crimes, board-game gambling ranks even below selling $10 bags of marijuana to New York University students. Around the fountain in the center of the park, hundreds gather to watch the street performer of the moment -- the juggler, the magician, the guy with the trained monkey that jumps on the arm of a rube. On the south side, the dog people take refuge in their fenced-in, gravel-covered enclosure, where humans and animals eye one another cautiously before succumbing to the bond of their shared interests, dogs and other dogs, respectively. There is hair of all colors and styles, piercings and tattoos that would make Dennis Rodman blush, bikers and skaters and readers and sleepers and sunbathers, homeless and Hare Krishna, the constant murmur of crowd noise floating in the thick air. None of it matters. Ive already squandered points with consecutive low-scoring plays intended to ditch a few tiles in hopes of picking up better companions for the Q that fortunately, I think, has appeared on my rack. And I got them: a U, two Es, an R, and an S. But the chess clock to my right taunts me like a grade school bully as it winds down from twenty-five minutes toward zero. I have these great letters, but no place to score a lot of points with them. Its only the second time that Ive played in Washington Square Park and, frankly, Im intimidated. My opponent is Diane Firstman, a fact I know only becau
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