Books: Word Freak

It takes Stefan Fatsis 114 pages to acknowledge what readers have already come to suspect. “Right now,” he writes, “Scrabble is the most important thing in my life.” He’s got plenty of company. In “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players” Fatsis documents the lives and travails of those for whom Scrabble-playing is a way of life. That alone would make for an interesting read, but what makes “Word Freak” even more compelling is that, well before the midpoint of the book, Fatsis has already joind the ranks of the Scrabble-obsessed.

Competitive Scrabble, it becomes rapidly apparent, is a wholly different game from that which families play on their dining room tables. For one thing, it’s always a two-player, head-to-head affair. For another, the World Famous Crossword Game isn’t really about words once you reach the upper echelons of play — it’s more about memorization, visualization and the ability to do absolutely astounding anagramation on the fly. Because players aren’t required to know the definitions of the words they play, they often make no effort to do so and instead opt to simply memorize the thousands and thousands of letter combinations which just happen to be in an approved dictionary. Really, the “words” could just be string of numerals — it would all be the same to these guys.

It also becomes clear that the best Scrabble players in the world are not just really good causal players — like chess grandmasters, these folks are a breed apart. What do you make of a group who, in their free time, hang out in cafes and challenge each other with anagrams. (“What’s TRANSMEDIA plus a V?” cries one. “MAIDSERVANTS!” a second replies a few moments latee.) They play and discuss and analyse and ponder Scrabble to the exclusion of just about everything else, using their spare moments to reviews lists of five-letter words and recreate historical Scrabble matches on their computers. Indeed, it’s unlikely that Fatsis could have found a more colorful cast of characters in any sport as he found here.

Although I am a board game enthusiast, I do not much care for Scrabble (or word games in general). But, even so, I quite enjoyed this book. Fatsis is a very good writer, and is introspective enough to recognize and report his own strengths, weaknesses and emotional upheavals as he participates in tournaments alongside the masters. At 350 pages the book is perhaps a little overlong given the subject matter, but is generally a fascinating and enjoyable read.

I purchased by copy of Word Freak from Amazon.com.

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