Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive ScrabblePlayers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, 9780618015849, 384pp.
Publication Date: July 1, 2001
Stefan Fatsis, a Wall Street Journal reporter and National Public Radio regular, recounts his remarkable rise through the ranks of elite Scrabble players while exploring the game's strange, potent hold over them -- and him.
Scrabble might truly be called America's game. More than two million sets are sold every year and at least thirty million American homes have one. But the game's most talented competitors inhabit a sphere far removed from the masses of "living room players." Theirs is a surprisingly diverse subculture whose stars include a vitamin-popping standup comic; a former bank teller whose intestinal troubles earn 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.
He begins by haunting the gritty corner of a Greenwich Village park where pickup Scrabble games can be found whenever weather permits. His curiosity soon morphs into compulsion, as he sets about memorizing thousands of obscure words and fills his evenings with solo Scrabble played on his living room floor. Before long he finds himself at tournaments socializing -- and competing -- with Scrabble's elite.
But this book is about more than hardcore Scrabblers, for the game yields insights into realms as disparate as linguistics, psychology, and mathematics. WORD FREAK extends its reach even further, pondering the light Scrabble throws on such notions as brilliance, memory, competition, failure, and hope. It is a geography of obsession that celebrates the uncanny powers locked in all of us.
STEFAN FATSIS is a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal and a regular commentator on NPR's All Things Considered. He has written for the Associated Press, the Village Voice, and P.O.V. magazine and has appeared on Good Morning, America to discuss the 2000 National Scrabble Championship. His first book, Wild and Outside, about minor-league baseball in Iowa, was described as "an altogether balanced, revealing, and enjoyable study" by Kirkus Reviews. In search of a story idea in 1997, Scrabble amateur Fatsis challenged the head of the National Scrabble Association to a game and won. He has since traveled the country playing in Scrabble tournaments and achieved "expert" status, and he currently ranks in the top 10 percent of tournament Scrabble players nationwide.
"Drama, strategy, controversy, pathos. The rich panorama of emotion.
Synchronized swimming? No. Scrabble. Who knew?" --Bob Costas, NBC Sports broadcaster and author of FAIR BALL
"An engrossing, inside look at the strange and rarefied world of competitive Scrabble. It's a pleasure to experience vicariously a level of play that I'll never achieve!" --Will Shortz, New York Times Crossword Editor and Puzzle Master of NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday"
"As they say in the Scrabble world, Fatsis got great tiles when he set out to write this book -- a slew of memorable characters, and a competitive subculture as bizarre as any I've ever seen in sport. I really enjoyed WORD FREAK." --Frank DeFord
"'Word Freak' is a fascinating look into a thriving, cultish world that's best admired from an armchair." Christian Science Monitor
"Succeeding, like its author, at everything it tries to be, this funny and engrossing book (it really is hard to put down) is as much about competition and the beauty of words as it is about the quirky and...often pathetic subculture of word freaks." Book Magazine