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Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis

 

Rating: ēēē (Recommended)

 

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Tales of Tiles

Wall Street Journal sports reporter Stefan Fatsis introduces readers to the unusual world of competitive Scrabble players in his book, Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. Fatsis assumes a Studs Terkel-like approach in presenting a dozen or so people and their stories about a world not often seen by most of us. He goes beyond Studs in telling his own story of a two-year journey from novice player to expert. The description of the game and the competitive players, along with Fatsisí own story-within-a-story, becomes as addictive as the game itself as you turn the pages to see what happens next. If you think you know something about Scrabble, this book will teach you otherwise:

ďTo play competitive Scrabble, one has to get over the conceit of refusing to acknowledge certain words as real and accept that the game requires learning words that may not have any outside utility. In the living room, Scrabble is about who has a better working vocabulary. Itís a sort of crossword puzzle in reverse. But in the tournament room, Scrabble has nothing to do with vocabulary. If it did, I Ė an Ivy League-educated professional journalist, for crying out loud Ė would rule. But I can only dream of competing with the champions. No, Scrabble isnít about words. Itís about mastering the rules of the game, and the words are the rules.Ē

Readers learn some of the words, and the approach players take to memorizing word lists and doing anagrams as ways of preparing to compete with the best players in the world. Fatsis reveals his personal obsession, and tournament preparation and play, in ways that go beyond what the usual journalist would reveal. The authorís participation and observation are both intense and acute, and readers benefit from his introspection and insight. Hereís another excerpt from a description of a tournament in Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania:

ďIím standing in the hotel parking lot. A group of Amish boys, no older than ten, walk by in straw hats, black pants, and white shirts, and I imagine how I would explain to them what Iím experiencing right now: how Iím about to play a big Scrabble game, how Iím eating a Snickers bar for energy, how Iím standing here alone, breathing deeply the malodorous air, because I need to focus on the game, to minimize distractions, to get away from the white-noise chitchat that fills the playing rooms between rounds.
Could I make them understand why this tournament is important to me? Why the act of playing a single round of a mass-produced board game against a middle-aged woman will affect my mood and self-esteem for days to come? Could I explain the player I walked past in the hotel parking lot this morning, mumbling to himself, who didnít look up, who looked mentally lost? Could I explain how I can relate to that sort of behavior, how this game has made the socially bizarre commonplace?Ē

The people Fatsis introduces are ones you might not meet in the normal course of your life. Reading Work Freak made me not want to continue my 30-year hiatus from Scrabble playing.

Steve Hopkins, June 12, 2002

 

2002 Hopkins and Company, LLC

 

The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the August 2002 issue of Executive Times

 

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