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This Could Spell Trouble

An amateur squares off with an expert across a Scrabble board.

July 22, 2001|BERNADETTE MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As much as I understand the draw of a game like Scrabble, the allure of being the best at something so arcane, I'm hoping to prove resistant. True, I fit all the criteria for a Scrabble junkie: Fascinated by words, I like to win contests at any cost and am more than a little obsessive. Plus, I'm scheduled to play Stefan Fatsis, a top-ranking Scrabble expert who has just written "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players" (Houghton Mifflin).

Fatsis, a sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal, ranks as an expert, "the 180th or so best Scrabble player in North America." I've nothing to recommend me beyond cutthroat vigor coupled with a foolishly obdurate desire to win. I pull my dusty Scrabble set from the back of the games closet, the theme from "Rocky" playing in my head. It's time to get in shape.

With "Word Freak," Fatsis has written a can't-put-it-down narrative that dances between memoir and reportage, including a comprehensive history of the game. The main thread recounts his descent, after his interest was piqued by a Sports Illustrated article, into the weird and genius-laden subculture surrounding the board game--over the course of the book he morphs from an interested observer to a chronic Scrabble zealot--while profiling the quirky, savant compatriots who befriend him.

There's Matt, a stand-up comedian hooked on smart drugs who once wrote for "Saturday Night Live"; Joe Edley, a three-time national champion who plays Scrabble by following Zen tenets; and another world champion who's earned the moniker "GI Joel" for the gastrointestinal problems that plague him.

Reading his book, I feel the pull along with him, the sense of being sucked in, little by little, fearful of realizing the danger only after it's too late.

"I wonder what my obsession is proving," Fatsis writes in the midst of his journey to becoming a top-ranking Scrabble competitor. "Maybe nothing. Maybe more than I care to admit. With the board and tiles and word books splayed across my living-room floor, 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 [stink]. But it doesn't seem avoidable either .... I'm having trouble typing these words, but right now Scrabble is the most important thing in my life." As I prepare for the Scrabble showdown, my father, an unwitting victim, stops by. I coerce him into a game, the first I've played in at least a year, and win: 286-210. A decent start, but, having read "Word Freak," I know much more is needed. Instead of relying on the words that spring to consciousness, I should be studying and memorizing the official Scrabble reference book, a volume I don't own, which lists all 110,000 acceptable words. I'm off to the bookstore.

"Playing competitive Scrabble is really no different, no more obsessive, than any other specialized activity," Larry Squire, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and psychology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine, assures me. He should know. In addition to being one of the country's leading experts on memory and the brain, Squire was once a competitive Scrabble player.

"If you look at any kind of human endeavor," he says, "especially those that are not remunerative, you'll see the same thing. Any specialized activity looks extreme from the outside." Squire's Scrabble career and those of his peers, he tells me, were not characterized by profound eccentricity. "You might look at the subculture of demolition derbies and think it's a little odd, but of course it looks odd if you're not a part of that culture."

Not the Game You Play

in Your Living Room

As much as I like Scrabble, I'm concerned. I didn't realize before reading Fatsis' book how different competitive Scrabble is from the living-room variety. Looking at boards from the competitive levels reproduced in Fatsis' book, one can't be sure the game's even being played in English.

Bizarre words litter the playing field: "serifed," "entailer," "mannite," "foceal," "novercal," "mattoics." Serious players study these odd words, memorize "bingo" possibilities (in which players use all their letters on a single turn, earning a bonus 50 points), commit to memory the 10 "Q" words that don't contain a "U" (qat, qaid, qoph, faqir, qanat, tranq, qindar, qintar, qwerty and sheqel) and master countless lists of words that are highly prized in Scrabble but virtually worthless in the everyday world.

I average 250 to 300 points a game, taking all the time I need. I learn from "Word Freak" that expert-level scores routinely run 400 to 600, sometimes peaking in the 700s. Plus, the competitors play under a time constraint: 25 minutes per player per game.

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