on July 11, 2003
I love this book. Fatsis lives the world of the Scrabble elite while taking us on his own journey to Scrabble greatness. For two years Fatsis turned tiles, travelling around the country and across the world to the Nationals. People who play this game for a living are very weird and seem to have great trouble fitting in anywhere but in this game world, but even among other word freaks they still maintain a kind of distance.
I would have loved this book a lot more if I enjoyed the writing, which I mostly didn't. I simply don't like Fatsis's style. His tone is uneven, he seems to write for teenagers, and the book is not well organized or conceived. But he's a remarkable researcher and is not afraid to tell it like it is, so I admire him for that.
Reading this book sent me back to my own Scrabble board, which had been gathering dust for some time. Thank you, Mr. Fatsis, for that. Until the obsession again dies down, the words will swirl in my head, and I'll be daydreaming, looking for tags and triple-triples.
on June 18, 2003
This book by Stefan Fatsis contains the drama, excitement and heartbreak that one expects from a well-written sports book. Of course, this is not a sports book but rather a book about SCRABBLE- the game and the world's best players. Fatsis becomes a part of the action and captures his obsession to become an expert player perfectly. He starts out by gently mocking the players but by the end he is including himself as one of the word-studying freaks in his pages. Fatsis is a terrific writer and makes SCRABBLE strategy entertaining to the reader. The obsessive players that he writes about could as easily be addicted to collecting baseball cards, playing backgammon or any other activity. The game is a wonderful backdrop to the quirky characters, including himself, that the author introduces to us. Whether you played the game or not, the book will capture your imagination. It is a game of words but the word the book most often brings to mind is entertaining. Who knows, you may want to engage in a little SCRABBLE of your own once you finish this book. If you enjoy well-written non-fiction sprinkled with humor and wit, this is a great book for you, even if you don't know the last word in the Official SCRABBLE Player's Dictionary- zyzzyva- a tropical weevil.
on June 4, 2003
Stefan Fatsis' "Word Freak" is a fascinating, if at times intense, look into the world of competitive Scrabble. As a "living room" Scrabble player, I looked forward to the insight that the book might give to my game. What I quickly learned was that I will never be a Scrabble pro - and after reading about those who are, I determined that maybe that is not a bad thing. To call these players quirky is a huge understatement. Most have made Scrabble their life quest - traveling to tournaments all around the country (and the world!) and re-programming their brains to the point where words like "djinny" and "elorst" jump off their racks for big points.
At first, the inhabitants of the Scrabble sub-culture are endearing, however over the nearly 400 pages of this account, Fatsis' title tag of "freak" ultimately (and truthfully) rises to the surface. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the author's own personal journey - from an outsider and Scrabble neophyte (how's that for a word!) to an "expert" ranked player whose obsession with the game nearly rivals the top pro players. It is truly a case of the reporter becoming an integral part of the story as Fastis becomes a full-fledged citizen of this peculiar world. I would guess that this Wall Street Journal sports reporter is still playing competitively these days.
Whether readers who do not have a passing knowledge and interest in Scrabble would enjoy this book is hard to say. For a Scrabble fan such as myself, even I was overwhelmed at times with the minutiae of tournament life and word play. Nevertheless, this is a quite entertaining and readable book. That said, I will happily return to the ignorant bliss of amateur Scrabble where ditching a "z" to spell "zoo" for a measly 12 points is a cool move.
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 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 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 June 3, 2002
And I just scored a whole ton of points on Scrabble.
Ah, Scrabble. Many an evening of my life has been spent playing the famous board game, especially since coming to college.
Blasted college girls and their so-called "standards."
But if my sex life has not improved, my vocabulary certainly has, as has the vocabulary of the people around me.
For instance, two of my regular Scrabble chums swear they had never heard of the word "moot" before I used it in one of our first games. Now, everything around them is "moot."
And "Qwerty" is another designated (unofficial but Scrabble-friendly) name for the universal keyboard on a computer or typewriter. You know, the keys start out with the letters "q," "w," "e," "r," "t" and "y."
(If one of your professors catches you reading this today in his or her class and tells you to actually learn something, explain what "Qwerty" means. Then tell him or her that the class you're attending has been rendered moot. They'll love it.)
If I weren't so cheap, I'd be buying all my Scrabble chums a copy of "Word Freak," by Stefan Fatsis, who I think has the greatest authorial name since Zadie Smith came along with "White Teeth" last year.
Fatsis, a sports writer for The Wall Street Journal, uses "Word Freak" as a window into, as the book is subtitled, "Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players."
Too often in nonfiction, there will come along a book with a clever concept that turns out to be an absolute snooze in reading. ... good for your coffee table but not much else.
"Word Freak" is painstaking in its Scrabble coverage. Actual information is peppered all the more by Fatsis' fascination with the game, and with other players' obsession with the game.
We start out with Scrabble players in the park and are eventually introduced to actual fanatics of the game. Kudos to Fatsis for not hiding behind a "names were changed to protect anybody" façade, and actually calling the people involved by name.
There's Matt, the drug-addicted high school dropout who is just mad crazy about anagrams (he can mix up a word's letters alphabetically in a matter of seconds, like "ABDEILMORSTUXY" and "ABCEGHILNOPRTUY," which of course unscramble into "ambidextrously" and "uncopyrightable").
There's Joe Edley, for quite a while an unbeaten champion and the "ultimate Scrabble swami," and one of many to take Fatsis under his wing.
There's Lester, an old radical and former champ. Lester's chapter opens the door to introduce Don, a homeless man and former player in the Nationals tournament ...
And along the way, Fatsis himself becomes more and more obsessed with the game, memorizing word lists, playing anagram games and struggling to increase his own puny Scrabble score.
If this book doesn't become some sort of unofficial Scrabble player's bible, I'll eat my hat. Fatsis literally doesn't leave a stone unturned, venturing back into the board game's history and providing a comprehensive (but not boring) profile of its creator Alfred Butts, and even uncovering an obscure board game with a concept similar to Scrabble's.
All kidding aside, "Word Freak" is a very interesting, unique book that would make a great holiday gift for the deserving Scrabble fan on your Christmas list, and an interesting novelty for anybody else.
You might want to cross-reference it with a dictionary, though.
on December 4, 2001
As a living room player of Scrabble who only drags out the board about ten times a year or so, I have only a passing interest in the game itself-however I am fascinated by subcultures of all kinds, and the kooky word of competitive Scrabble was just too alluring to pass up. For the most part Fatsis succeeded in writing a compelling and vivid story of the game and its lovers, while detailing his own growing obsession/addiction to it. His feat of juggling Scrabble's corporate and sociological history, basic and high strategic theory, arcana, intimate portraits of top players, along with his own amazing rise to expert level rating, is what makes the narrative successful and compelling to even the non-Scrabble players.
There are a couple of caveats to this endorsement. Casual players such as myself must accept that Scrabble played at the competitive level described in Fatsis's account is almost a completely deferent game from what gets played in living rooms amongst family members. First of all, it's generally one on one, with a 25-minute timer. Secondly-and most importantly-the words played with often bear little relation to standard English as you and I know it. Indeed, as his lengthy discussion of the compilation of the official Scrabble dictionary makes clear, almost no word is too obsolete or archaic, and no transliteration too ridiculous to play. Oh yeah, and by the way, the rest of the world uses the British version dictionary with about 20,000 other words. In other words, looking at an expert level Scrabble board can often be like looking at gibberish. Once one gets over this, one learns along with Fatsis that the only way to get into the upper ranks of the Scrabble world is to memorize words... for years...
Of course, how you memorize the words matters, and Fatsis makes sure to explain how a number of the top players accomplish this (hint, you need 4-10 free hours a day, which might explain why so many top Scrabble players don't hold down regular jobs). Along with sheer memorization is anagramming, which trains one to pick words out of jumbled letters, and then there's all the strategy involved in managing the rack (ie. your tiles), the board, and soforth. This naturally drifts into the realm of probability and game theory and such, which gets rather detailed and may not hold the attention of some readers (although I quite liked these discussions).
The book could have done better in cutting the history of tedious and petty feuds between top players and Scrabble management and corporate ownership. They don't bring anything to the story other than to emphasize the pettiness of maladjusted adults and a desire on Fatsis's part to leave no stone unturned. It's amazing enough that he makes us care about a number of social misfits who find solace and meaning in their Scrabble obsessions, there's no need to push the envelope and quote their lengthy e-mail flames to oneanother. The book's other main weakness is it's treatment of women. Fatsis quickly gets in with a number of the guys devoting chapters to a number of them, but he only spends three pages talking to the top women players! It's an area in which his journalistic training seems to have failed him, since there are a number of interesting difference between woman and men players that he only skims the surface of. It's as if in dealing with his own efforts to claw his way up the ratings and hang with his buddies, he didn't have the energy left to deal with the women. Still, these are relatively minor quibbles for what is a mostly fascinating window into an oddball subculture.