On my train ride to Charlotte, NC, earlier this year, having finished the Motown book, I started reading Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players by Stefan Fatsis. This was another library sale book purchase. I finished it a few mornings later.
The book is part history of the game, part autobiography. Fatsis, a Wall Street Journal sports reporter who can be heard regularly on National Public Radio, writes about his evolution from playing pickup Scrabble games in Greenwich Village (lower Manhattan) to his improbable rise through the ranks of high-ranking Scrabble players. He describes the elite competitors, who play at a level far beyond those 30 million players who compete in American living rooms. The “freaks” include a vitamin-popping standup comic; a former bank teller whose intestinal troubles earned him the nickname “G.I. Joel”; a burly, unemployed African American from Baltimore’s inner city; the three-time national champion who plays according to Zen principles; and Fatsis himself, who we see transformed from a curious reporter to a confirmed Scrabble nut.
The early chapters alternate between the competition narrative and the history of the game, from inventor Alfred Butts; to the various game owners (Selchow & Righter, Coleco, Hasbro, Mattel UK) and their response/responsibility to competitive Scrabble, which, unlike chess, has intellectual property restrictions; to the words themselves, how best to learn them – anagramming! – and how legitimate words are determined in the US and in international play.
If the latter chapters were a little bit too much “inside baseball” – will Fatsis make it to the next level? – it was still an interesting read. I particularly enjoyed the description of Albany, or more specifically, “Outside Albany, at the Marriott in suburban Colonie, along a highway [Wolf Road] lined with strip malls and corporate parks.” And Ron Tiekert, using a rack of EENRSU?, spelling AUBERGiNES through an existing A, B, and G, making the blank an I, IS extraordinary.