Word FreakHeartbreak Triumph Genius Obsession World Competitive Scrabble Players
Penguin BooksCopyright © 2002 Stefan Fatsis
All right reserved.ISBN: 0142002267
The cops arrive, as they always do, their Aegean blue NYPD cruiser
bumping onto the sidewalk and into the northwest corner of Washington
Square Park. There are no sirens or flashing lights, but the late-
model Buick does emit a staccato bwip-bwip to signal to the public
that business is at hand. The drug dealers usually shuffle away,
perpetuating the cat-and-mouse game that occurs hourly in this six-
acre plot of concrete, grass, dirt, and action in Greenwich Village.
The druggies whisper, "Sense, smoke, sense, smoke," as they have for
twenty or thirty years, seemingly in tacit agreement with the cops to
ply their trade as long as they do it quietly. But now, instead of
allowing the dealers to scatter as they normally do, officers in
short-sleeved summer uniforms, chests bulging from flak jackets,
actually step out of the cruiser, grab a man, and slap on cuffs.
"What"s going on?" someone asks.
"They"re arresting a drug dealer."
I don"t look up.
It is a hot, humid, windless Sunday afternoon in August 1997
in New York City, an asphalt-and-concrete circle of hell. The
blacktop is thick with urban detritus - broken glass, bits of
yellowed newspaper pages, stained paper coffee cups, dozens upon
dozens of cigarette butts. In the southwest corner of the park,
hustlers occupying the dozen or so stone tables attempt to lure the
unsuspecting. "You need to play chess," one of them announces. Tens
and twenties are exchanged and surreptitiously pocketed with a glance
over the shoulder. Not that the hustlers need worry; on the scale of
petty crimes, board-game gambling ranks even below selling $10 bags
of marijuana to New York University students. Around the fountain in
the center of the park, hundreds gather to watch the street performer
of the moment - the juggler, the magician, the guy with the trained
monkey that jumps on the arm of a rube. On the south side, the dog
people take refuge in their fenced-in, gravel-covered enclosure,
where humans and animals eye one another cautiously before succumbing
to the bond of their shared interests, dogs and other dogs,
respectively. There is hair of all colors and styles, piercings and
tattoos that would make Dennis Rodman blush, bikers and skaters and
readers and sleepers and sunbathers, homeless and Hare Krishna, the
constant murmur of crowd noise floating in the thick air.
None of it matters.
I"ve already squandered points with consecutive low-scoring plays
intended to ditch a few tiles in hopes of picking up better
companions for the Q that fortunately, I think, has appeared on my
rack. And I got them: a U, two E"s, an R, and an S. But the chess
clock to my right taunts me like a grade school bully as it winds
down from twenty-five minutes toward zero. I have these great
letters, but no place to score a lot of points with them. It"s only
the second time that I"ve played in Washington Square Park and,
frankly, I"m intimidated.
My opponent is Diane Firstman, a fact I know only because she
has handwritten and taped her name to the back of each of the
standard-issue wooden racks that hold the game"s tiles. She is a
tall, physically awkward woman with short hair, glasses, and a mouth
of crooked teeth: Janet Reno with an anagram jones. She carries a
clipboard with her personal scorecard - "Diane"s Score," it is
titled - which contains boxed areas to record her point totals and
those of her opponent, each of the words they create, and all one
hundred tiles. She marks off the letters as they are laid out in word
combinations so she can keep track of what"s left in the plaid sack
sitting next to the board.
Diane is an up-and-coming player at the Manhattan Scrabble
Club, which meets Thursday nights at an old residence hotel in
midtown. On her right wrist she wears a watch featuring the
trademarked Scrabble logo. On her head is a crumpled San Diego Padres
baseball cap, circa 1985. Without knowing, I figure that excelling at
Scrabble is a way for this ungainly thirty-something woman to shed
whatever insecurities she might have. During a game, shed them she
does. I have watched her play another novice, Chris, who chats during
play. Among the Scrabble elite this habit might be a highly scorned
mind-game tactic known as "coffeehousing," but in this case it"s just
friendly banter. Worse, Chris thinks out loud, and when her brain
momentarily short-circuits and she questions Diane"s play of the word
LEAFS, the retort comes quickly: "Duh! As in leafs through a book!"
When Diane makes a particularly satisfying or high-scoring play, she
struggles to stifle a smile, rocks her head from side to side,
proudly (and loudly) announces her score, and smacks the chess clock
with too much élan.
I have made sure that Diane and the others who gather daily
at the three picnic tables in this corner of the park know that I"m a
newbie. When asked, I say that I"m just learning to play the game.
Which in the strictest sense isn"t true. Everyone knows how to play
Scrabble. Along with Monopoly, Candy Land, and a few other chestnuts,
Scrabble is among the best-selling and most enduring games in the two-
hundred-year history of the American toy industry. Hasbro Inc., which
owns the rights to Scrabble in North America, sells well over a
million sets a year. Around a hundred million sets have been sold
worldwide since the game was first mass-produced in 1948. In some
households, Scrabble is extricated from closets around the holidays
as a way for families to kill time; in others, it"s a kitchen-table
mainstay. Regardless, say the word "Scrabble" and everyone knows what
you"re talking about: the game in which you make words.
But it"s much more than that. Before I discovered Washington
Square Park, I was aware of the game"s wider cultural significance.
Scrabble is one of those one-size-fits-all totems that pops up in
movies, books, and the news. I once wrote an article that mentioned
the Scrabble tournament that Michael Milken had organized in the
white-collar prison where he did time for securities fraud. There"s
the scene in the movie Foul Play in which one little old lady plays
the word MOTHER and another extends it with FUCKERS. Mad magazine has
regularly made fun of the game. (A 1973 feature on "magazines for
neglected sports" included Scrabble Happenings: "My Wife Made XEROXED
on a Triple . . . So I Shot Her!") Scrabble has appeared in The
Simpsons and Seinfeld, the Robert Altman films 3 Women and Cookie"s
Fortune, the Cary Grant snoozer The Grass Is Greener, and the
seventies comedy Freebie and the Bean. In Rosemary"s Baby, Mia Farrow
uses Scrabble tiles to figure out that the name of her friendly
neighbor Roman Castevet anagrams to that of a witch named Steven
Rosie O"Donnell regularly talks about her Scrabble addiction.
Higher brows love it, too. In a bit about mythical Florida tourist
traps, Garrison Keillor lists the International Scrabble Hall of
Fame. Charles Bukowski"s poem "pulled down shade" ends with the
lines: "this fucking/Scotch is/great./let"s play/Scrabble." Vladimir
Nabokov, in his novel Ada, describes an old Russian game said to be a
forerunner of Scrabble. The game is a cultural Zelig: a mockable
emblem of Eisenhower-era family values, a stand-in for geekiness, a
pastime so decidedly unhip that it"s hip. In places like the park,
I"m learning, it also embodies the narcotic allure of strategic games
and the beauty of the English language.
I have been dabbling in Scrabble since I was a teenager.
There is a summer-vacation photo of my two older brothers playing
with two older cousins; barred from their game, I - somewhat
pathetically but what choice do I have, really? - am relegated to
keeping score. Like many childhood snubs, this one haunts me into
adulthood. In the last years of high school, I play late-night games
with a friend on the next block, a couple of decent suburban kids
listening to seventies rock and killing time before the next sports
event or night of bar- and diner-hopping.
Around the same time, my brother Lampros gets hooked on the
game. He is eight years my senior and mathematically inclined; he
scored a perfect 800 on his SAT and taught me square roots when I was
in the second grade. It"s the middle of the lost decade of his
twenties, and Lamp is on a long-term plan to graduate from M.I.T.
He"s got plenty of time on his hands, so when he and his journalism-
student roommate pick up the game, he becomes obsessed. He masters
the two- and three-letter words. He stays up all night reading the
newly published Scrabble dictionary. The two play marathon sessions,
and keep a running dime-a-point tally of their scores, which they
apply against utility bills. I think them weird. And cool.
But I"m never much intrigued until a girlfriend and I
christen our blooming love with a travel set. We tote it to the
Canadian Rockies and the Grand Tetons, to Greece and Turkey, to a
ranch in Colorado and an adobe in Santa Fe, to Vermont ski chalets
and Hamptons beach motels, where we play constantly, recording the
date and place of each encounter. She presents me with a copy of the
OSPD - The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (first edition) -
with the following inscription: "For consultation only. NO
memorizing!" And though I abide her request regarding the dictionary,
I win too often. "Why do you even want to play with me?" she asks
after one especially lopsided contest, and my heart sinks as I
realize that this refuge in what has become an otherwise imperfect
life together is forever gone. When the time comes to divide our
belongings, book and board are mine.
Panicking, I lay down the obvious QUEERS, aware somehow that
I am doomed.
A good living room player. That"s what John D. Williams, Jr., had
dubbed me, and if it sounds like a backhanded compliment, that"s
because it is. From a storefront office on the eastern shore of Long
Island, Williams runs the National Scrabble Association, the
governing body of the game. Many top players, I learn, resent his
authority, but he"s also partly responsible for the wild growth of
tournament play in recent years. The NSA, which is independent of but
funded predominantly by Hasbro, publishes a Scrabble newsletter
received by about 10,000 people, keeps track of the ratings of some
2,300 active tournament players, sanctions 200 clubs, and oversees
150 tournaments a year, twice as many as a decade earlier. The
national championship the previous summer had attracted 400 players.
In a few months, Williams tells me, Hasbro and the NSA will host the
world championships, with players from thirty countries, some of whom
barely speak English.
I had proposed a game against Williams as a starting point
for the quest I had hatched with friends on New Year"s Day: to become
a competitive Scrabble player. Why? I couldn"t say exactly. I had
read a recent Sports Illustrated story about the eccentric,
apparently cutthroat world of competitive Scrabble and thought, I"ve
played this game, I can do that. My newlywed friends Jonathan and
Lynn Hock had been squaring off daily and would call to brag about
seven-letter words and high-scoring contests. I joined them for
occasional three-handed games, hoping that engaging in a cherished
pastime from my old relationship would help me mourn its demise. In
the aftermath of the breakup, I conveniently blew out a knee playing
soccer and spent most of my nights in obsessive postsurgical rehab.
But physical therapy was winding down. I needed something to do. I
needed, horrors, a hobby.
En route to Jon and Lynn"s Upper West Side apartment to ring
in the new year with a few games, I stopped in a Barnes & Noble and
bought every Scrabble-related book on the shelf, including (a
mistake, I later learned) the third edition of the OSPD. To record
the first step of my journey, we photographed the board. Weeks later,
I called John Williams to propose a friendly game. My goal: to lose,
and lose badly. After all, this was supposed to be a journey.
Odysseus wandered around for ten years. Columbus"s crew nearly
mutinied before he happened upon land. The Donner party starved in
"You just might win," Williams says as we sit down to play in
his midtown hotel room.
"Yeah, right," I reply, clinging to my script.
Williams plays CARED to open the game, scoring 22 points. I
draw a bingo - a play using all seven of one"s tiles, worth an extra
50 points - on my first turn: LEAPING, which I place below the last
two letters of CARED, forming EL and DE. "There you go," Williams
says, before pointing out that PEALING would have been worth more.
But I am unaware that PE, which I could have made by placing the P
above the E in CARED, is an acceptable word (it"s a Hebrew letter).
After a few low-scoring turns for each of us, I lay down SQUIRE, and
suddenly I"m ahead, 139-44. A few plays later, I throw down another
bingo, RESIDUE, for 77, and my lead grows to 233-116.
"I will say you"re getting great tiles," Williams remarks.
It"s true, I already have pulled both blank tiles, three of the four
precious S"s, the lone Q accompanied by a U, and a bunch of E"s and
R"s. Still, I think, he could be a little more generous. But then
Williams says, "Not only are you getting great tiles, you know what
to do with them," and I feel a touch guilty for my ungracious thought.
I play LOGE for 13. He plays DICE for 27. I play ZEST for 41.
"I"m surprised you didn"t have a Y for ZESTY and a double-
word score," Williams cracks, gibing me for my good fortune. He
passes his turn, trading in an I, O, R, and two U"s. Okay, so maybe I
am getting good tiles. I play WIDTH on a triple-word score for 36. I
play TAX on a triple-word score for 30. I finally do get that Y, and
play YAM for 21: 391-202. FIT for 30, NO for 17. When it"s over, I
have beaten the executive director of the National Scrabble
"Holy shit," I remark, trying not to gloat.
"You"re not kidding," Williams replies.