- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

“Word Wars,” booked exclusively for two weeks at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, acknowledges a debt to the book “Word Freak,” whose author, Stefan Fatsis, is an interview subject. Presumably, he provided the inquiring documentary filmmakers, Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo, with an entree to the other subjects: Scrabble players devoted enough to belong to the board game’s national association and compete on its tournament circuit.

The movie is trimly framed by an introductory tournament in Las Vegas in December of 2001 and the national championships nine months later in San Diego. The acquaintances formed with a quartet of principal subjects — Matt Graham, Joel Sherman, Marlon Hill and Joe Edley — serve the production admirably right through the final match.

Mr. Edley was a defending national champion, acknowledged to be the country’s best tournament player at the time; the remaining trio is in contention through the closing rounds. Spectators share a substantial human-interest investment in the “Word Wars” bunch by the time a suspenseful finale beckons.

Mr. Hill of East Baltimore is the “bad boy” of the group, complacent enough to let the filmmakers tape him while he smokes a joint in the neighborhood and later solicits a prostitute in San Diego. The Scrabble gods seem to reserve an exquisite punishment for this indulgence: what is known in the trade as a “terrible rack,” an assortment of seven letters that defy word formation.

Mr. Edley, married and the father of a little girl (she demonstrates an ominous facility for spelling backward), is the only figure who seems to find a normal life feasible. The others are solitaries hungry for victory and the prospect of genuinely big-time prize money on the circuit. Nevertheless, you might not want to share the road with Mr. Edley, since he likes to study his flashcards while behind the wheel.

Mr. Graham permits a glimpse of his teeming library and teeming vitamin supplement shelf. He is also the most vocal misanthrope on camera, speculating that the whole planet might be better off blown to smithereens. The spindly Mr. Sherman has a nickname, “G.I.,” alluding to his unruly gastrointestinal tract. He is known to be a chronic gurgler during matches.

At the tournament level players customarily score in the 400-range, or better. Each player has 25 minutes in which to complete his selections. Mr. Graham and Mr. Hill are seen blithely winning preliminary matches despite entering conspicuously late. The clock begins at a specific time, whether the player is present or not.

The filmmakers seem to account for all the ground rules and many fine points while touching base with numerous aficionados. An early part of the survey covers habitual players who made Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village a mecca. Mr. Edley gamely returns for a match with a local champion, Aldo, who had humbled him in an earlier encounter. We’re informed that the Washington Park set scorns tournament competition. A session with the executive director of the NSA, John D. Williams, Jr., facilitates background information about the history and growth of the game over 65 years.

An ingenious use of graphics repeatedly tumbles the letters in words to reveal anagrams, indispensable to top-flight players. One admirable enhancement is reserved for the championship match: a running tally of every word played and point scored. In addition, the definitions of several words are inserted in the interests of cinematic vocabulary building.

In short, “Word Wars” seldom takes a misstep while escorting us through a particular wing of the competitive-brainiac subculture.

***

TITLE: “Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (Adult subject matter, with frequent profanity, occasional vulgarity, fleeting depictions of drug use and an episode involving prostitution)

CREDITS: Directed by Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo. Production by Mr. Chaikin. Suggested by the book “Word Freak” by Stefan Fatsis. Principal photography by Laela Kilbourne. Sound editor: Kenny Klimak. Film editing by Conor O’Neil. Music by Thor Madsen

RUNNING TIME: 77 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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