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Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players Hardcover – July 7, 2001

4.4 out of 5 stars 139 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Like a cross between a linguistic spy and a lexicographic Olympic athlete, journalist Stefan Fatsis gave himself a year to penetrate the highest echelons of international Scrabble competition. Word Freak is the account of his journey. It's a wacky grab bag of travelogue, history, party journal, and psychological study of the misfits and goofballs whose lives are measured out in Scrabble tiles.

Fatsis gives us all the facts about Scrabble--from the story of the down-on-his-luck architect who invented the game in the 1930s to the intricacies of individual international competitions and the corporate wars to control the world's favorite word game. He keeps the reader turning the pages as we get involved in the lives of the Scrabble obsessives: men and women who have a point to prove against the world and have chosen Scrabble as their playground and their pulpit. As Fatsis goes on his own quest to attain the coveted 1600 rating, we actually get obsessed with him as he lies awake at night pondering moves and memorizing lists of words. For anybody who is interested in words, Word Freak provides an entertaining and absorbing read. --Dwight Longenecker, Amazon.co.uk

From Publishers Weekly

It takes a special kind of person to be able to rattle off all the words that start with the letter q but don't require a u or to immediately recognize that the same letters used for the word "troutmania" can also spell "maturation" and "natatorium." These talented individuals are the subject of Fatsis's tell-all on the professional Scrabble realm's inner sanctum. The Wall Street Journal sports reporter (and author of Wild and Outside) began simply as a curious journalist but was soon obsessed, befriending dozens of experts in his passage from "living room player" to the continent's 180th (or so) best player. The book entertainingly and admiringly portrays the irreverent crowd that lives, eats and breathes Scrabble, interspersing mini-profiles with updates on Fatsis's progress and historical facts about the game. Among the cast of characters familiar with words like "eloiners" and "loxodrome" are "G.I." Joel Sherman, who directs the Manhattan Scrabble Club despite his dental problems, asthma attacks and lactose intolerance; Matt Graham, a stand-up comedian who let Scrabble fill the void when he got fired from his gig at Saturday Night Live; and Steve Williams, a Harvard grad with psychiatric problems, also the winner of the 1977 New York City championship. Fatsis gives an in-depth Scrabble history, too from portraying Alfred Butts, the game's meticulous Depression-era inventor, to explaining how Hasbro manages to sell over one million sets a year with minimal advertising. Journalistic, expressive prose helps transform this potentially dry account of some word-obsessed oddballs into a funny, albeit vertical, glimpse at one of America's quirkiest special-interest groups. (July 10)Forecast: Are there 25,000 hardcore Scrabble fans out there? Hard to say, but Houghton Mifflin is counting on it, and in order to reach them, the house is taking an NPR sponsorship (Fatsis is an NPR contributor) and sending the author on a six-city tour. He is booked on the Today Show.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1St Edition edition (July 7, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618015841
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618015849
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (139 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #731,814 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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?
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