- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

By Stefan Fatsis
Houghton Mifflin, $25, 372 pages

Stefan Fatsis wants some respect for his favorite game, Scrabble. It is, after all, an intellectual pursuit that requires a knowledge of words (or at least those listed in the official Scrabble dictionary), the ability to anagram letters into playable terms, a sense of spatial relationships, and strategy. Successful players also need mathematical skill (for counting tiles and analyzing probability) and guts (in order to bluff with fake words and to challenge those played by others). And yet, organized Scrabble attracts only one eighth of the players that organized chess does.
The competitive world of tournament Scrabble is, however, not short on eccentrics, some of whom imagine a future in which their game is taken as seriously as any other and receives full media coverage, perhaps with postmortems on ESPN. These players (more than hobbyists, but less than professionals since only one or two can make a living at it) comprise a whining, antisocial crowd of old ladies, unstable young men, and lifelong obscurantists.
Joe Leonard, who lives in a one-bedroom, government-subsidized apartment in Philadelphia, is not so much an exception as a hero in this social milieu, an almost perfect distillation of the obsessive-compulsive personality that builds a life around this game. Some of North America's best Scrabble players refer to Leonard as the "Word List Master General" for his feat of finding some five thousand words that should have been published in the original Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.
Mr. Leonard "estimates he spent more than 8,000 hours — four years full-time — working on the lists on which the revised dictionary was based." He was never paid for that work and never expected to be. But when an article in a Scrabble newsletter appeared to give someone else credit, Mr. Leonard became such a nuisance that he was kicked out of the National Scrabble Association. Which is like getting kicked out of West Virginia; it just doesn't happen. Nine years later, Mr. Leonard was allowed back into the fold, on the condition that he not "vent all [his] frustrations" at the National Scrabble Association. With praiseworthy lightness, Mr. Fatsis ends the chapter, writing, "Joe is perplexed by the statement, and mentions it in several letters to me."
Mr. Leonard and several other world-class misfits are lovingly profiled in "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obssession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players." But it is more than a group portrait. The book is also a history of this proprietary board game, which, unlike chess or backgammon, is actually owned by someone. Scrabble was invented by Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect looking to sell Depression-era Americans on an inexpensive leisure activity.
Butts could find no one to manufacture his game, which he originally called "Criss-Cross Words." So he made the games by hand and sold them out of his house, one set at a time. Fourteen years after mailing off his first two sets, and much tinkering with the original rules and design, he was approached by James Brunot, who worked in government but was looking to go into business.
It was Brunot who came up with the name Scrabble (chosen mainly for its sound), a worthy contribution indeed, though it was Butts who had done all the tedious work of figuring out how many tiles were needed and how many squares should be on the board. The partnership was a great success, though, only several years after being formed. Of course neither Butts or Brunot could foresee the anxious subculture that would grow up around the game.
Butt's nephew tells Mr. Fatsis that his uncle "didn't quite get the point of memorizing word lists." Brunot, too, was taken aback by the intensity of Scrabble's enthusiasts. "It's only a game," he said. "It's something you're supposed to enjoy." And many people did. In 1954, seven years after the two men had gone into business together, Scrabble sold a stunning 3.7 million units, which included 100,000 in foreign languages.
These are of course the two sides of the classic Scrabble debate. On one side are those who think it "only a game" and are shocked to lose over a word that appears almost nowhere in everyday language. "Who ever heard of the word SUQ?" On the other side are those who resolve never to lose again, who go and look up SUQ and many other words to boot. Mr. Fatsis discovered he was of the latter sort. In the course of reseaching "Word Freak," the author became an expert-rated Scrabble player and a regular fixture on the club and tournament scene.
At his best, Mr. Fatsis makes this personal journey into a compelling story of determination and skill. It is not long before the reader is swept up in the weird joy of excellent Scrabble play. Indeed, it appears, at least for a moment, to be a slippery slope between wanting to win in the living room and wanting to, say, follow in the footsteps of a champion player like Joel Sherman.
But, while reading Mr. Fatsis' often hilarious book, one learns about the scandalous biological quirks that earned Mr. Sherman his nickname, "G.I." Joel. The "G.I." stands for gastrointestinal. This kind of thing should keep organized Scrabble always on the margins of serious sport. In what other competitive sport is a great player's nickname inspired by his flatulence?

David Skinner is assistant managing editor of the Weekly Standard.

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