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    There comes a time in any obsession when you have to learn more.  It doesn't matter whether the
    object of an obsession is a person,  a sports car, a football team, or a board game.  You just do.
    You need to see the shrinking world into which you are being sucked as a fully formed whole.
    Before I throw myself deeper into the abyss that Scrabble appears to be, hijacking my nights,
    weekends, and idle thoughts--I've started dreaming about the game--I need to understand where it
    came from, and how it became an institution unlike any other in the two-hundred-year history of
    the American toy industry.  To do that, I need to answer one question : Who was Alfred Butts?
        -Word Freak

There, in a paragraph, is what you're in for once you pick up this very interesting, often amusing, but ultimately troubling book.  Stefan Fatsis, who many will be familiar with through his sports writing for the Wall Street Journal and/or his reports for NPR, offers both a comprehensive history of the game of Scrabble, and a fascinating portrait of the strange netherworld of Scrabble enthusiasts, with everyone from child prodigies to Zen Buddhists to psychiatric patients, traveling the country to get to tournaments where the top prize is a few thousand dollars.  Though the book starts casually enough, with Fatsis playing pick up games in Washington Square Park, by the end he's completely obsessed, memorizing word lists, endlessly replaying blunders, and living and dying by his official Scrabble ranking, having set himself a goal of reaching 1700.

Now, I'm willing to bet you've got a Scrabble set in your house, maybe even more than one.  And you probably get it down a couple times a year--most likely at Christmas time and at some point in the Summer, when you're at the shore--play feverishly for a night or a week, and then put it away and forget about it for another six months.  Maybe you even remember a particularly spectacular game or turn (Personally, I recall when I was 12 and my grandfather, a Federal judge and a a truly brilliant man, dropped the word MEASLES for the first play of the game, essentially finishing the contest right then).  But here are a whole group of people who define themselves by, and judge their own self-worth by, their rankings in the game.  To be a world class player requires you to memorize literally thousands of "words" that you will never see in the real world.  Championship players know every two letter word, all the words that begin with Q, all the seven letter words, etc.--and actually don't even know them all, just know the ones that are accepted in the Official Tournament and Club Word List.  They aren't even playing the game any more, they are just demonstrating memorization skills.  They sure as heck don't seem to be enjoying themselves, which one would think is a fairly fundamental prerequisite for a game.

In the beginning, Fatsis himself, while he does not hold them up for ridicule or anything like that, recognizes that much of the story here lies in the oddish personalities who are attracted to this competition.  But then he too succumbs and gradually turns into the word freak of the title.  The whole thing is more than a little disconcerting.

Whether you're a Scrabble fan yourself, or just looking for a good read, the book is definitely enjoyable.  But I couldn't help but agree with the sentiment expressed by Alfred Butts's nephew Bob (Alfred Butts, in case you hadn't figured it out, invented the game) :

    He thought he was inventing a game people would play around a card table, like bridge or
    something like that.  He didn't quite get the point of memorizing word lists.

Neither do I, Bob, neither do I.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Sports (General)
Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis (FSB Associates)
    -NPR Archives Search
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Noah talks to sports reporter Stephen Fatsis who just returned from the National Scrabble Championships. Fatsis describes the colorful scene, the fierce competition, and the final winner, Brian Cappelletto (NPR, All Things Considered, August 14, 1998 )
    -ESSAY : The Wiffle Kings (Stefan Fatsis, Wall Street Journal,  August 06, 1999)
    -ESSAY : This is not your ordinary match (Stefan Fatsis, Wall Street Journal,  June 19, 1998 )
    -ESSAY : Humble Beginnings Can Lead to the Big Leagues (Stefan Fatsis, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : How the XFL Became a Big Flop in TV History (Stefan Fatsis and Joe Flint, April 23 2001, Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Bogus buyers spoil luxury home sales (Stefan Fatsis, May 10, 1997 , The Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Is That a Haunted House You're Buying  (Stefan Fatsis, Wall Street Journal, 27 October 1995)
    -ESSAY : Sue thy neighbor (Stefan Fatsis, 8/11/96, The Wall Street Journal)
    -ESSAY : Cities remodel to lure upscale buyers (Stefan Fatsis, The Wall Street Journal )
    -PROFILE : of Whitley Streiber  (STEFAN FATSIS Associated Press)
    -REVIEW : of Word Freak (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Word Freak (Molly McQuade, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of   Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the  World of Competitive Scrabble By Stefan Fatsis (Steve Greenlee, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Word Freak (Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW : of Word Freak (Scott C. Yates, Rocky Mountain News)
 

GENERAL :
    -Worldwide Scrabble
    -National Scrabble Association
    -Jim's Scrabble Page (Jim Geary)
    -Official Scrabble Players Dictionary
    -Scrabble Club
    -LINKS : General-Interest Print Media Articles on Scrabble
    -ESSAY : Wordstock Nation: Valley Scrabble fanatics rack havoc with America's favorite word game (Dewey Webb, Phoenix New Times, March 11, 1999 )

Comments:

Well written review. However, given the narrative structure of much of the book, I would consider labeling the part of your review where you reveal his rating at the end of the book as a "spoiler".

- John in DC

- Sep-15-2003, 10:17

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