Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Scrabble Reviews: Word Freak and Word Wars

Word Freak

Word Freak is an enjoyable book on gaming obsession, and a must read for any Scrabble fan. Steve Fatsis, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, took a year to follow some of the main American figures in the Scrabble tournament scene. In so doing, he became a bit of a word freak himself, climbing in the ranks of national Scrabble standings to a respectable level.

The reading is easy-going, but the pictures he paints of his main characters are rather freaky, to say the least. In some cases, downright disturbing. Many seem to have no other life or work, have hygiene or health problems as well as maturity problems, and a variety of other neuroses. The only place these guys (for it is mostly guys) feel comfortable is while rattling a bag of tiles or anagramming. Despite this, they quibble with each other more often than find friendship, appearing to tolerate each other out of a need for a worthy opponent to play.

The book also covers historical topics about the origins of the game, the ranking system, and the international scene (with a mention of our own Jerusalem Scrabble club).

What's made clear from this book is that the game of Scrabble played by most of us bears little resemblance to the game played at the tournament level. While we scramble our letter around looking for words we actually know, which makes the game primarily a verbal game, tournament players scramble the letters around looking for memorized patterns and scoring points, which makes it mostly a pattern recognition and odds calculation game.

Myself, I prefer to just play Anagrams.

Word Wars

This is, essentially, a movie version of the above book, but less so. In fact, the producers were inspired by the book Word Freak, and even interviewed Steven Fatsis several times during the movie.

The movie follows four characters in the run up to the National Scrabble Championship, three of which were also central characters in the book. However, the coverage is far less thorough. We learn some of the main character traits of these figures, but not much else. With some better editing and some more backstory, we might become more attached to the characters.

It briefly touches on the New York park Scrabble scene, but mentions nothing about other cities, the origins of the game, the ranking system, other tournaments, and so on. If I hadn't read the book, I would have found the movie interesting, but short and shallow. Having read the book, the movie had little to offer.

Still, if you haven't read the book, and you're obsessed with Scrabble, and this movie turns up on TV, you will enjoy it.



Friendless said...

I think Fatsis does mention that he chose particularly interesting people to write about. For example, little mention is made of Brian Capelletto because despite being a fine Scrabble player he's just not eccentric enough. Scrabble ratings are on-line at:


Tournament results are also on-line so you can see to some extent what happened to those guys after the book finished.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen the video "Craziest?" It is a sort of bizarre video involving scrabble http://www.vidlit.com/craziest/

Lots of fun.