Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Word Freak

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE ® Players by Stefan Fatsis
Trade Paperback, 384 pages
Penguin, 2001
ISBN-13: 9780142002261
Non fiction
highly recommended

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.... [Fatsis'] 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.
My Thoughts:

Word Freak takes a look inside the subculture of obsessive, competitive Scrabble players as well as the history of the game. Almost everyone has played Scrabble. Fatsis took it a step further and decided to try to become a highly ranked competitive Scrabble player. Word Freak is strangely fascinating as it delves into competitive Scrabble players and their strategies, obsession with finding anagrams for fun, and memorization of word lists - lots of word lists. It takes a whole lot of work and dedication to be a successful tournament level Scrabble player. Gradually Fatsis himself turns into the "word freak." There is a lot of strategy talk that may slow down the casual reader. Although I actually found Word Freak quite interesting, and it makes me want to play a game of Scrabble, I have no desire to become a tournament level player.
Highly Recommended


The world of games and the world of words are governed by their own set of elaborate rules. This book is about one game, Scrabble, and the words used in playing that game. So it's only natural that it has a few rules of its own, too.
First, a little background: Organized, competitive, tournament Scrabble differs from the game played at home. A twenty-three-page rule book governs everything.... One [rule], however, bears mentioning up front: Competitive Scrabble is a one-on-one game. opening

Scrabble is among the best-selling and most enduring games in the two- hundred-year history of the American toy industry. Hasbro Inc., which owns the rights to Scrabble in North America, sells well over a million sets a year. Around a hundred million sets have been sold worldwide since the game was first mass-produced in 1948. .... say the word “Scrabble” and everyone knows what you’re talking about: the game in which you make words. pg. 3

A good living room player. That's what John D. Williams, Jr., had dubbed me, and if it sounds like a backhanded compliment, that's because it is. pg. 5

(In competitive Scrabble, each player has twenty-five minutes to complete a game; "go over" on time and you are penalized 10 points per minute.) pg. 9

Might as well be a UFO convention. The Scrabble tournament scene, it turns out - and I'm shocked, shocked - isn't the most highly functional subculture around. "We're dealing with some borderline pathology here," Charles Southwell....says as he surveys the hotel ballroom where eighty top players are competing. pg. 12

"It's the only thing I've put a lot of hard work into," Joel says. "When I can prove that my approach - my concentration on strategy as opposed to their concentration on rote dictionary memorization - it elevates my self-esteem. It's the one thing I'm really good at, and if I can't accomplish something in this field, it's unlikely I'll accomplish something in any other field.
"So this basically validates my existence." He pauses. "I'm not kidding." pg 19

In a way, the living room player is lucky. He has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slip by unnoticed. The idea of Scrabble greatness doesn't even exist for him. pg. 128

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