on April 25, 2004
"For a moment I wonder, like Roz, what my obsession is proving. Maybe nothing. Maybe more than I care to admit. With the board and tiles and word books splayed across my living room, and my regular circuit of tournaments, and leaving work early on Thursdays to get to the club on time, I have managed to reorder my life so that I can play a board game. This doesn't seem healthy, especially because I still suck. But it doesn't seem avoidable, either. I entered this world because it was a curiosity, a good story. Then it became an infatuation. I'm having trouble typing these words, but right now Scrabble is the most important thing in my life."
Stefan Fatsis sets out to report on the world of competitive Scrabble and ends up getting sucked in beyond what he'd intended for his story. As expected, this book is very much about the game, and between the stories of the people he meets, the strange drama of the national and international tournament systems, and the history of the game itself, Fatsis has put together an intriguing little story. A strange story, to be sure, about strange people, but an interesting little diversion--if that's all he'd managed.
But somehow, in examining this quirky subculture of which he becomes a part (and himself as he becomes a part of it), Fatsis exposes far more universal truths about personal validation, self-identity, and the realities we create around ourselves. I'm not even sure he means to, so absorbed is he in his quest for 'the total game.' Sometimes he's a bit tedious about this or that anagram or the possibilities for such and such word combination--but that's what 'those people' do. I'm left haunted by the uncomfortable suspicion, though, that most of the rest of us are similarly off-center, almost as unbalanced, and just as desperate for validation in our own misfit little portions of the world.
Fortunately the individuals portrayed are sympathetic characters more than pathetic ones, and it's not so bad to feel connected to most of them. I'm pretty sure there's a lesson implicit in Word Freak about life involving luck side by side with choices and skill, and being all you can be, and even something about how you play being more important than how you rank against others. But seeing as how such sentimental melodrama makes me sick, I think I'll just stick with "Great book! It's about these people who are REALLY into Scrabble."
on January 2, 2004
The acquaintance who recommended this book told me it would renew my interest in and excitement about playing Scrabble. Wrong! The message I took away from this read is renewed belief that human beings can pervert just about anything.
Another reviewer mentioned her offense at the author's denegration of "blue hairs," as he likes to call female senior citizens. He also seems to disdain "fat middle aged women," whom he refers to several times and whom he is humiliated to lose to. Later in the book, he deigns to devote a couple of pages to female Scrabble players and explains that, although they outnumber male players in tournaments, they are not competitive at the highest levels -- mostly because they have lives apart from Scrabble (like jobs, family, friends) -- unlike the obsessive male Scrabble players who dominate the book, several of whom seem to be genuinely mentally ill.
If I had any ideas of joining a Scrabble club or doing anything more than playing occasionally with my sister, this book squelched those desires. And perhaps it's just as well. As a fat middle-aged women about 10 years short of a blue-hair, I am probably better off sticking with quilting and needlepoint where I can be with my own kind.
I have rated this book 3 stars because Fatsis does have a way of drawing me into the book. Just when I'm ready to set it aside, either because the technical detail is boring or because I'm offended by his treatment of women, he manages to recapture my attention. It's not a page turner, but I feel compelled to finish reading it.
on December 12, 2003
It's amazing to think that something like Scrabble could lead to an all-consuming obsession. I'd always been an avid amateur player and enjoyed the game, but I'd certainly never spent hours combing the dictionary for new words. Yet in Fatsis' book, we get an opportunity to take a brief glimpse into the worlds of those who do, and to witness Fatsis' own growing compulsion to reach the somewhat dubious goal of Scrabble perfection.
That said, I'll admit that I had a copy of the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary (or the OSPD, as it's referred to among the hard-core players), some word lists, and a stack of flash cards by the time I was done reading the book. The intensity of the prose and the obvious enthusiasm of the people involved drew me into their world whether I had intended to go or not. After all, how could I not admire the foreign players that routinely play words that I'd never consider getting on the board, even though they have no clue what they mean? How could I not respect the acumen of those that pick typos out of the Oxford English Dictionary, or even notice that the older Scrabble boxes show tiles with the wrong point values, or anagram a paragraph of text at a time? From the first page to the last, the book offers a view of a unique subculture, in which it is impossible to escape the allure of the words. When I reached the appendix, in which Fastis lists all of the words in the book that were not Tournament-legal, I could tell how his report on this topic had drawn him in. When I went to verify some of the book's stranger words in my copy of the OSPD, I realized how successfully he had drawn me in as well.
An excellent read, but make sure you have some free time to deal with the inevitable obsession.
on March 23, 2003
Scrabble is one of the most popular board games in the world. A relaxing diversion for most, it has spawned a subculture of competitive play, the subject of journalist Stefan Fatsis investigations in "Word Freak."
The game is relatively new, being the invention of one Alfred Butts (inspired in part by Edgar Allan Poe). An architect thrown out of work during the Great Depression, Butts took most of the 1930s to develop Scrabble, the description of which makes clear how difficult it is to invent a good game, even though Scrabble now seems like a completely obvious and natural idea. Unable to secure a contract with a game manufacturer, Butts was obliged to personally assemble and mail the sets to customers reached only by word of mouth. The game eventually got commercial distribution in the late '40s, but it was only in the early '50s that it really took off, becoming a national craze before its sales subsided to the more modest, but steady, level they have retained ever since. Sold by Butts to Selchow & Righter, Scrabble is currently owned by Hasbro. Butts earned a total of about a million dollars from sales, so he wasn't completely stiffed, but given that upwards of 100 million sets have been sold worldwide this amounts to less than a fair shake for what is probably the greatest board game with a known creator.
Most of the rest of the book is devoted to Fatsis' observations of the top players and his personal journey to improve his rating (Scrabble has a chess-like rating system). Fatsis encounters the usual passel of misfits, oddballs and curious characters of the type familiar to anyone who has ever had more than a casual involvement with chess, gambling or even video games. These pastimes, which may threaten to swallow one's entire life, seem to have a fatal attraction for a particular type, who is generally cerebral, competitive, solitary, eccentric and male. In fairness, however, the majority of players are quite normal. Even at the highest level there is a balance between the well-rounded, with full time jobs (often university professors) and those tending to monomania. Fatsis recounts his personal struggle with the obsessive lure of Scrabble. The kibitzing, one-upmanship and occasional feuding, but also the peculiar sense of community engendered by the game are well rendered.
Like all competitive pastimes Scrabble has a hierarchy. The untouchables, almost beneath contempt, are "living-room players," that is, normal people who play only for fun. Above them are the "blue hairs," blue-rinsed grandmothers, who make up the lowest grade of tournament players. Starting as a novice, Fatsis gradually gains strength, albeit not without setbacks: as any real player knows, there is no pain like the pain of losing to some limper you should be mopping the floor with. Eventually, however, he attains expert level, amongst the top 200 players in North America.
The serious game is different from the amateur version. First, and obviously, scores are a lot higher. Scores over 500 are routine, with the record a whopping 770. So are multiple bingos (playing all seven letters for a 50-point bonus) in the same game. Challenging words and even deliberately playing phonies are important tactical points. The issue of what words are acceptable is one of the most unsatisfying aspects of the serious game. For one thing, there are different official dictionaries in different parts of the world. Players therefore have to memorize not only obscure words but also which word list they are in, depending on whether they are playing in local, foreign or international events. The combined British and North American official word list, known by the unforgettable name of SOWPODS, an anagram of the acronyms of the two lists, is used in most of the world outside North America. The pros also resort to sharp practices, such as the Machiavellian tactic of deliberately playing a phony in the hope that the opponent will not only accept it, but pluralize or otherwise extend it. The extended word is then challenged as a phony and the opponent loses a turn. The admission of other "words" such as BRR (as in "Brr! It's cold!") which can be extended to make BRRR, also seem rather questionable. While the game requires a certain strategic sense the main way of improving one's play is simply by learning more words. There are hundreds of obscure two and three-letter words that have to be learned just to reach minimal tournament strength, and then thousands of special lists, like the 84 possible bingos that can be made from the root SATIRE plus one other tile, or, for the truly dedicated, the 21,734 seven letter bingos in the Scrabble Players Dictionary. This sort of mnemonic drudgery, which must make learning chess openings feel like going to the movies, has to practised for years to crack the top ranks. Many words are so obscure that players do not even bother to learn their meanings, which strikes one as rather Philistine.
While it is a matter of taste, there is a sense in which competitive Scrabble goes a bit too far. Scrabble should be fun. There is something slightly unpleasant about the prospect of sitting down for a game with some hard-core obsessive who in all seriousness plays words like ALNAGES, JIMP or WATERZOOL, or absurd twos like CH, UG or ZO. Fatsis makes the fair point that the top players do not get much public recognition (or money) for their hard work and talent. Yet on the other hand, there is something slightly horrifying about so much effort and ingenuity being devoted to something so inconsequential, although this is certainly true of many other activities besides Scrabble.
Fatsis describes his subjects (and himself) with empathy and humour. It may not inspire the reader to become a tournament Scrabble player, but "Word Freak" is a well-written and entertaining account of a subculture most of us will never get to see.
on March 16, 2003
The author, an otherwise reputable sports reporter and writer, spent two years devoting his life to Scrabble in order to document the obsession, eccentricity, and passion found in the world of competitive Scrabble. Fatsis talks about the history of the game and how the tournaments were born, but the real star of this book is the game itself, and the expert players. He introduces us to the quirky oddballs, I mean esteemed luminaries, who form the upper echelons of Scrabble playing: the uptight, meditating and self-affirming expert who comes across as arrogant; the affable and possibly hypochondriac Joel, nick-named "G.I. Joel," as in Gastro-Intentinal, for obvious and unfortunate reasons; the unemployable African-American quasi-activist, ever complaining about the Man; the neurotic, pill-popping Matt, also unemployable. Fatsis acknowledges that he's highlighted the eccentric characters among the experts and only breifly touched upon the many "normal" expert players, and why not? It makes for more interesting reading. Interesting, too, is the game as it's played by experts: a different game indeed from drawing-room amateurs' bouts. The words are archaic to the point of unrecognizability: two-letter words like AA and SH also abound, allowing for players to lay tiles atop or below other words instead of intersecting them in the familiar way. The only way to become an expert (a goal Fatsis soon becomes literally obsessed with) is to memorize reams of these words; many players are only vaguely familiar with their meanings, if at all. They know only whether the words are acceptable in the official word list. It comes to a point where the letters are, as one expert puts it, "scoring tools:" they may as well be colors, or shapes that you arrange in memorized patterns. And in a way, that's strange and sad, for isn't Scrabble a game of active word power, not rote memorization of thousands of letter strings? In any case, a fascinating look into a world of obsession, written in a clear, intelligent, and honest style. Hard to put down.
on January 21, 2003
While this book is the tale of a professional sports writer who decides to try to become a competitive Scrabble player, it is really a tale of obsession. The players detailed in the book have no other goal in life except to win as many Scrabble games by the widest margin as often as they can. And in order to achieve this goal, the players must spend an immense amount of time studying word lists, and analyzing prior plays to determine how best to play the board. Some of the players spend more time studying and playing the game than any full time job would require. Since most of them don't have a job, they are able to commit huge word lists to memory. The funny thing is that very few of them actually know the meaning of the words they use, only that they exist as words. And any outside person to the game would probably not recognize 70% of the words played.
I remember reading a study years ago that eccentrics, people who become obsessed with an hobby or pastime, often live longer than other people because their single minded devotion actually gives them more of a purpose to live. If that is true, then many of the players highlighted in this book should see one hundred years at least. While it is hard to understand their obsession, I did some to admire the players. They are truly doing what they want to do. They have not conformed to the 9-5 working day, with a spouse and 1.8 children. While most players have very limited funds, none of the players seemed to moan about the lack of money. As long as they had enough to provide for the most basic needs, Scrabble fulfilled the rest of their life. Since Fatsis interviewed very few family members of the players, it was difficult to see the impact that this lifestyle had on the family. But one father did bemoan the fact that this two sons, both in their 30's never seemed to be able to hold a job and were content to do nothing else except play Scrabble and live at home with their elderly father.
Author Fatsis does a wonderful job of describing the players and their motivation. He asks hard questions and doesn't hesitate to point out how odd their viewpoints are when compared to the rest of society. Yet he also wonders at the way their brains work, the amazing ability these players possess to see words out of a random set of letters. He stands in awe of the immense amount of work that players have devoted to the game and wonders how much it would take to lure him into this sub-culture. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the game because much detail is given about its origins, and the various strategies employed to become a competitive player. But I would also recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand obsession and how one single purpose in life can shape that life.
on January 16, 2003
I have no complaints about this book except that it's rather dry considering the subject matter is about a sub-culture of people partially or totally obsessed with a board game. My main problem is this: Near the end of the book when Fatsis is describing his experience where he claimed to have played the "total game," I was appalled to discover a mistake in his reasoning. He graphically (p. 338 in my paperback edition) and deliberately describes the set-up on a board during a particular tournamet game nearing the end game. He says that he had an available place to play MATADORS but to ensure that his opponent would not block his chances, he plays the letter B on anavailable O (BO) to set up an alternate place to bingo with the hook on BO for ABO on a subsequent turn. The problem is that MATADORS would not fit on the board in the place where the A on his tray would hook onto ABO. Now this may sound like a small complaint, but this whole book is about attention to detail. Is this just a case of poor proof-reading or is Fatsis jerking the reader around with a phony set-up? I am a little bit ticked at this minor irritation because I asked Fatsis at a recent Book Review at Powell's Books if he felt any pangs of remorse by playing phony words. He said that it was just part of the game and why should he feel remorse? I frankly think that the phony words diminish the purity of the game and Fatsis should acknowledge that the game will be flawed until this bluffing techniques is ruled illegal. If he wants to bluff he should play poker. If he gets a thrill out of laying down a phony word and getting away with it, so be it. But when he gloats at his successful challenge of an inferior opponent's play of a plural noun with an S hooked onto his own phony word, I draw the line. He should feel good about his ability to play the game in its purest form, not in his ability to out-flank an inferior opponent. Shame on him. Life in the world of a competitive Scrabble player may be as pathetic as he describes.
on December 11, 2002
Early on, the author begins a sentence: "Without knowing, I imagine...", and there seems to be a fair bit of that in this book. On page 146, he attributes my refusal to grant him an interview to my being "too frustrated to rehash" my dictionary "battles". (The main reason: I had just completed an extensive email interview with a prospective author to whom I felt a sense of loyalty inasmuch as I had sold him my collection of Scrabble News. The questions in that interview covered a lot of ground missing from this book, so I hope the book appears someday.) Alas, lightning destroyed my surge protector and the computer on which my emailed refusal resided; without knowing, I imagine that it contained the phrase "word freaks", and I'd be real surprised if it contained any of the words "frustrated, rehash, battles".
Nonetheless, a leitmotiv of Mr. Fatsis' opus is his ability to lay out lucidly and fairly positions with which he may disagree, and he does so with respect to my thoughts on the official dictionary in the chapter titled "Words", and alludes to them on at least two other occasions. Some of this chapter's astuter apercus appear to stem, without explicit credit, from an article I wrote for a language review, though the article appears in the sources on page 370 (of the paperback edition, which contains a 3-paragraph update to the original edition), and there are two direct, credited quotations.
There's a lot of information on the invention and marketing of the game. But most of the book is about people, tournament enthusiasts. Unfortunately, much of the focus is on the three players described by the author himself as "most extreme" in a classic understatement. There's a tsunami of information on the author's own rise to expert ranks; one would think that some of Robert Felt has rubbed off. In this rather long book, there's still plenty of room for descriptions of a wide variety of other enthusiasts, most of whom I knew when I played, and the descriptions ring true even if one must be suspicious of details. There's a lot of info on the clothes worn by interviewees, enough to make one wonder what the author himself wears. The author would have done well to interview in addition a half dozen or so "blue-hairs", who collectively have enriched my life in countless ways; it's no membership is meager when a significant portion thereof is mocked at the highest levels.
So why the four-star rating for so flawy a book? Simply because it's so easy to ignore the rough parts to get to the good stuff. There's enough profanity, drugs, etc., to disconcert many and warrant a PG-13 rating (and you might want to keep this or any Scrabble book away from your kids till after they take their SATs, since a lot of the acceptable words are misspellings in any other contemporary context). But when the author puts his mind to it, he often finds le mot juste or a clever figure of speech. (One of my favorites: "stiffer than Al Gore".)
In my experience, perhaps 15% of people who find word games attractive want to play solely with the vocabulary they already know. Such people are probably not reading this review, and in any case probably won't enjoy this book; the author tosses out words like "eidetic, hiragana, weltanschauung," and dozens more with every expectation that you can look them up if necessary.
Of the other 85%, fewer than 1% find that they can long enjoy an environment where they are hustled into accepting forms like DE (as in "Charles de Gaulle"; I wish I were kidding). For that 1%, this book could be the start or continuation of a great adventure. And for the other 84%, including people like me now retired from clubs and tournaments, the book is a great read and will help confirm that the right decision has been made.
on October 28, 2002
This book is a must read for anyone who has ever become addicted to any kind of puzzle. Fatsis lives the life of a scrabble addict for 3 years, studying word lists, memorizing 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 letter words, developing his talent for anagramming (they key to a top scrabble player). Perhaps more interesting are his brief bios of scrabble luminaries, an odd but somehow endearing bunch who are totally devoted to the game. For novices like me, the strategy and intricacy of the games played are mind-boggling. I don't think I've ever scored a bingo in years of casual playing, but good scrabble players score several EACH GAME! Of course they also follow odd lexicons of scrabble words -- many don't quite know what the words mean although they know whether it's a word or not. In fact, most living room players wouldn't even recognize half the words on the board, no less be able to calculate the odds of returning a letter for a better "rack." Fatsis did a great job describing his own obsession, his own rise (and sometimes fall) and his ability to play with the big boys. I loved it from start to finish.
on September 26, 2002
This book ties together many different threads into a great package. At a high level, it follows Fatsis' journey into the upper ranks of Scrabble mastery, but along the way he detours into history, American business, popular games, personality profiles in a strange subculture, and an examination of what it takes to gain mastery of any subject.
The interesting characters that Mr. Fatsis describes are the strongest engine propelling the book. I found myself amused by their quirks, but also sympathizing with their desires for approval and validation. Even the weirdest and most obnoxious Scrabble masters have their strengths revealed.
My favorite aspect of the book comes into play only in the last chapters. As Mr. Fatsis approaches the higher levels of play, he finds it hard to truly consider himself a master and begins to examine what mastery means and discusses some of the studies that have been done in the area. Even his cursory examination of the subject (mastery generally takes around 10 years of 3-4 hour-a-day solitary study; accomplishing it faster doesn't usually mean someone is "smarter" but probably just has better study techniques) was sufficient to peak my interest and has provoked some interesting discussions with my friends.
I don't think this is a book for everyone. If you are not interested in language or words or scrabble, or you dislike competetive environments or unusual personalities, then I would think you might have trouble getting involved with this book. But if you can imagine learning a somewhat obscure skill just for the fun of it, you will probably find this a rewarding read.