on July 18, 2001
The title is all the 7-letter words that can be formed from Fatsis and a blank. Okay, I'm a little biased. .... But seriously, having spent a fair amount of time with the author for the last four years, I can say I was tremendously impressed by the breadth of his research, the depth of his devotion to the subject as well as his own personal quest, and the honesty of his characterizations not only of many people I know well but also of himself. I learned things from this book that I never new about the history of Scrabble despite having been involved for nearly half of the life of the competitive association and having read as many publications as I could that have been generated within its community. I learned things about my fellow players that endeared me even more to some of them. I learned things about Stefan that made me feel we must be somehow related even tho I know we don't share any genes. And wouldn't you know it, on top of it all, I also found out the sonofagun can really write!
I have to warn casual players (and readers) that parts of this book may appear to bog down in detailed explanations of how players study word lists and other apparent trivia. But when you reach one of those passages, please remember this is a work of non-fiction, and as such it has a duty to be informative at least part of the time. So skim past the slow passage, and you'll find more rewarding characterizations, beautifully chosen metaphors for the game and the author's struggle to master it, and narration that runs the gamut from poignant to weird to downright hilarious. The great majority of the book is as entertaining as it is informative, so don't stop til you reach the end -- I didn't, and I hadn't finished a book in years.
on July 29, 2001
Years ago at a friendly kitchen table game of Scrabble my dad excitedly mentioned that they have tournaments for this sort of thing. I thought he was nuts, but a few months later he had won his first tournament in the fifth division at New Albany. When he showed off his winnings, one (frankly goofy) mug, I knew it was all down hill.
I watched with a bemused and frightened kind of admiration as he flew cross-country to play in tournaments and memorized world list after word list and his ranking improved. He'd come to visit and tell stories of racks, plays, opponents, wins and losses. None of which I really understood or cared about. But I nodded encouragingly like any good daughter ought to. When my friends talked about how dorky their fathers were, all I had to do was mention my dad plays Scrabble competively and is really pretty good at it. They resigned to my dorky dominance. I always realized my dad was part of some bizzare sunculture, but Word Freak made a few things clear: 1. My dad is execptionally normal in the grand scheme of Scrabble things. 2. He is nowhere near alone. 3. The subculture is much more bizzare and much more developed than I ever knew.
I don't read nonfiction, but I felt obliged to read this and I really, really liked it. These characters--these (real) people--are unbelievable and yet believably real. Fatsis does an amazing job of not only presenting them as real (obessed) players, but explaining the profile of a competitive games player. He even makes the history of Scrabble interesting. (How that's possible is beyond me.) It's chracter-driven, entertaining and well written. In short, I loved it.
on June 30, 2001
Fatsis spent time with avid scrabble players. Here are his observations. He relates through several dozen loosely linked narrations how the game has been transformed since the 1950s into a community that is strangely both exotic and familiar. This witty book celebrates scrabble as our national mental pasttime. Everyone who likes the game will find her or himself in these pages.
With a fresh writing style, he shares a huge amount of information about the way the game is seriously (if not addictively) played without the reader feeling burdened. (Did you know that in any random selection of 7 tiles, there is a 12% chance of a seven letter word appearing?)
Fatsis delves in an anthropological way into the life styles of noted participants in the competitive game. Some of these people are poster children for the saying that you either succeed in art or in life but not in both. The author knows how to approach even the most difficult personalities with wit and compassion.
He takes the reader to visit lonely geniuses in ill-kept apartments, clubs in New york City which spawned top competitors, competitions in Reno and elsewhere. He recounts the tussles between player associations and the manufacturers as unhappy, comical scenes from a lifelong dysfunctional marriage.
Fatsis is, I take it, a sports writer for the Wall Street Journal, and you should take that as an indication he knows how to bridge chasms. Lurking underneath the surface of his prose, I sense a belief in the power of play to discover value in our lives, and what more exquisite play is there but with words? Is it coincidental that during the decades of scrabble's dominance as a pasttime, one of our leading poets, James Merrill, used a Ouija board to help compose poems?
There is a genre of books and films which focus on wierd, outcast personalities. Fatsis does spend time in his book at the edge of society. But this is not another story about loners. Fatsis himself is a semi-competitive scrabble player. By projecting himself both as participant and observer, he brings us along to the extent that many readers will find something of themselves in an antic life of competitive play.
If you like scrabble, and if you are are curious about how creativity occurs in the world of play, and especially if there is a Walter Mitty crouching inside you, buy this book.
The story of personal achievement in competitive tournament-level Scrabble and trying to place that achievement into context forms the backbone of Word Freak. The result of writing about such an endeavor regarding a board game would most likely result in a slim volume; however, Word Freak is broad in scope. Who knew that a substantial book of 360 pgs could be written about Scrabble? Even as a tournament player of several years, with plenty of my own strategies & stories to tell, I was a bit skeptical at first. Fatsis makes Word Freak succeed by entwining game history, anecdotes, and the stories of very interesting people with his individual achievement of growing from a Scrabble novice into an expert. The result is a very readable book that switches gears every couple of chapters to maintain reader interest. Of particular interest is the history of the Scrabble game, how it changed owners, and how that, in turn, affected the realm of competitive Scrabble players. The book is thorough in representing the types of Scrabble players, including the board blocking blue-hairs, the idiot-savant experts, and even those with normalized social skills. One weakness is that the book occasionally wanders off into detailed strategical explanations, perhaps losing the interest of everyday players. The ultimate reason that Word Freak succeeds is because the story comes back around to the personal experience of the writer, the fact that Scrabble is only a game, and that friends met and challenging one's self along the way is reason enough to be obsessed with Scrabble perfection.
on June 29, 2001
As a mid-expert level tournament Scrabble player, I know the game and most of the people who populate this book. I greatly enjoyed this literate and entertaining account of the nature of the game, the often eccentric nature of its top players, and the personal quest of Mr. Fatsis to obtain a degree of mastery of this game which fascinates so many of us.
I would think this work would be an interesting read for non-players or less serious players as well--but I may obviously be biased in this regard. Mr. Fatsis was not a "natural" at the game, and had to struggle mightily to conquer both the strategic and word knowledge challenges and his own psyche--struggles with which every competitive Scrabble player can identify. The struggles with his own psyche make compelling reading. . .and could be a metaphor for the difficulties faced by anyone attempting to gain mastery of any competitive endeavor. I suspect the "obsessiveness" required to approach the top of the Scrabble tournament scene is no greater than the obsessiveness required to achieve world class status at any other sport or game.
There is probably no subject which can not be made interesting by a talented writer. Mr. Fatsis has turned his considerable skills to a little known competitive sub-culture and produced a riveting tale which runs the gamut from farce to high drama.
on August 30, 2001
This is a great book about what it takes to be an expert, in a domain that most of us are familiar with. But I doubt any of us casual Scrabble players had any idea of what it takes to become a top flight tournament player. Late in the book Fatsis compares the growth of expertise in Scrabble with the well-known cognitive science work on expertise in other domains like chess, and he is right on the mark. It takes prolonged "deliberate practice", that is, practice with great attention to the process by which various moves succeed or fail. Those of us who play for fun with whatever words we know from our ordinary experience do not progress toward expertise. It takes hard work, as illustrated by all the examples Fatsis gives in his splendid portraits of top players. To his credit, Fatsis himself moves very quickly to the lower rungs of the expert level, but he works his tail off to do it. I have for years used chess, music, and math examples of expertise in my classes on cognitive psychology, and I am delighted to now be armed with this rich, incredibly interesting material to use in future teaching. And yes, Fatsis writes with a narrative flair that keeps you up late at night reading the next episode. All in all, a wonderful book.
on June 30, 2001
This is a great book--I enjoyed every bit of it and plan to send a copy to my old Scrabble partner right away. The book works on so many levels: as a wonderfully accurate and detailed description of a unique subculture; as a compelling study of what it takes to thoroughly master whatever in life one loves (e.g, Scrabble, jazz, basketball); as a history of a great game; and as inspiration and instruction to Scrabble players at every level. Mr. Fatsis deserves kudos and the book should be widely read. If you love Scrabble, or words, or competition, or have a desire to master something you love, read this book.
As a living room player of Scrabble who only drags out the board about ten times a year or so, I have only a passing interest in the game itself-however I am fascinated by subcultures of all kinds, and the kooky word of competitive Scrabble was just too alluring to pass up. For the most part Fatsis succeeded in writing a compelling and vivid story of the game and its lovers, while detailing his own growing obsession/addiction to it. His feat of juggling Scrabble's corporate and sociological history, basic and high strategic theory, arcana, intimate portraits of top players, along with his own amazing rise to expert level rating, is what makes the narrative successful and compelling to even the non-Scrabble players.
There are a couple of caveats to this endorsement. Casual players such as myself must accept that Scrabble played at the competitive level described in Fatsis's account is almost a completely deferent game from what gets played in living rooms amongst family members. First of all, it's generally one on one, with a 25-minute timer. Secondly-and most importantly-the words played with often bear little relation to standard English as you and I know it. Indeed, as his lengthy discussion of the compilation of the official Scrabble dictionary makes clear, almost no word is too obsolete or archaic, and no transliteration too ridiculous to play. Oh yeah, and by the way, the rest of the world uses the British version dictionary with about 20,000 other words. In other words, looking at an expert level Scrabble board can often be like looking at gibberish. Once one gets over this, one learns along with Fatsis that the only way to get into the upper ranks of the Scrabble world is to memorize words... for years...
Of course, how you memorize the words matters, and Fatsis makes sure to explain how a number of the top players accomplish this (hint, you need 4-10 free hours a day, which might explain why so many top Scrabble players don't hold down regular jobs). Along with sheer memorization is anagramming, which trains one to pick words out of jumbled letters, and then there's all the strategy involved in managing the rack (ie. your tiles), the board, and soforth. This naturally drifts into the realm of probability and game theory and such, which gets rather detailed and may not hold the attention of some readers (although I quite liked these discussions).
The book could have done better in cutting the history of tedious and petty feuds between top players and Scrabble management and corporate ownership. They don't bring anything to the story other than to emphasize the pettiness of maladjusted adults and a desire on Fatsis's part to leave no stone unturned. It's amazing enough that he makes us care about a number of social misfits who find solace and meaning in their Scrabble obsessions, there's no need to push the envelope and quote their lengthy e-mail flames to oneanother. The book's other main weakness is it's treatment of women. Fatsis quickly gets in with a number of the guys devoting chapters to a number of them, but he only spends three pages talking to the top women players! It's an area in which his journalistic training seems to have failed him, since there are a number of interesting difference between woman and men players that he only skims the surface of. It's as if in dealing with his own efforts to claw his way up the ratings and hang with his buddies, he didn't have the energy left to deal with the women. Still, these are relatively minor quibbles for what is a mostly fascinating window into an oddball subculture.
on September 17, 2001
This is a delightful and informative across-the-board look at the competitive world of Scrabble. As a once-avid Scrabble player myself, one who has played in tournaments (although at a low level), I enjoyed Fatsis' multi-level approach to this board game.
One level, the one with tremendous personal insight and revelation, is his own personal leap into serious Scrabble and the goal of trying to become an expert--a task he discovers takes dedication as well as some innate abilities.
Interspersed with those chapter on his personal growth as a Scrabble player, Fatsis delivers on another level: treating us to the history of Scrabble as a game, and a particularly interesting segment on the game's inventor, Alfred Butts, and background information on the companies who have owned it.
In-depth peaks at several individual players bring us to a higher level, to some of the masters of the game: Joe Edley, Joel Sherman, Matt Graham, Brian Cappelletto, Lester Schonbrun, Marlon Hill, Joel Wapnick, Ron Tiekert, and others. Fatsis takes us into the psychology and physiology of the competitive Scrabble player and leads us to some fascinating findings.
And on the highest level sits the world of competition at the local, regional, national, and world tournaments, and the personal camaraderie, weirdness and struggle to win at that level. In all, this book lives up to its title and gives us a very personal look at the heartbreak, triumphs, genius, and obsession in the world of competitive Scrabble players. And I thoroughly enjoyed that journey.
I am considered the aggressive Scrabble player in my family because I know a few words that use a q without a u and because I occasionally use all seven tiles to get the fifty extra points. Yet compared to the guys in WORD FREAK, Stefan Fatsis' very readable book about competetive Scrabble players, I am so minor league that putting me up against one of them would be like PeeWee Herman duking it out with Mike Tyson.
Fatsis takes us inside this unique subculture and introduces us to a number of oddball characters who populate it. For many of them, Scrabble is not merely a hobby, nor is it (despite the title of my review) an obsession. Rather, for many it is really their life and the only thing they have got going for them. Fatsis does an excellent job of humanizing these players and taking us beyond their single minded focus while also taking us on his own journey to become an expert. The good thing about WORD FREAK is that one need not be a Scrabble player to enjoy it. Anyone who has had a similar area of intense focus, be it chess or comic book collecting, will understand and appreciate it.
Along his journey, Fatsis takes us on some interesting side trips, including sections on the inventor of the game, the spread of its popularity, the quibbling over dictionaries and the implications of Scrabble being a corporate controlled game unlike chess. These flesh out the book and put the action into context.
Parts of the book are a bit inaccessible for the reason that most of the words played are ridiculously obscure. In chess, anyone familiar with the game can appreciate the moves even if one is not as skilled as a grandmaster. But in Scrabble, the board often looks to be a hodgepodge of random letters. This makes expert level play more distant and esoteric and probably has the effect of limiting the spread of high level playing. Again, Fatsis discusses this and the annoyance among the book's characters that they are not as appreciated by the larger culture as equally skilled chess players.
Overall, WORD FREAK is an enjoyable read. I would recommend it not only to Scrabble players but to those readers who enjoy examining particular slices of Americana subcultures. You will not look at your living room games the same again.