Letter by Letter – “Word Freak” by Stefan Fatsis
There’s a fine line between genius and madness, and it appears there’s a fine line between journalism and memoir. In Stefan Fatsis’ “Word Freak,” we not only get an in-depth look at the history of one of America’s favorite board games, but we also get to watch the subculture of people who play it professionally as they make their way from tournament to tournament, always chasing the perfect game.
It’s about Scrabble. Everyone knows Scrabble, right? The game with the letter tiles and you make words on the board with all the squares? (If you don’t know Scrabble, I worry for you. Really.)
Fatsis, a journalist, went from novice player to fairly high-ranked competitive player while writing this book. More than just a history, it’s also a memoir of a man who grows more and more consumed by a game. He obsesses over anagrams and pulls all-nighters memorizing lists of acceptable words. About 3/4 of the book is Fatsis’ story of his journey into the obsessive world of Scrabble die-hards. Along the way, we meet a cast of misfits not unlike the cast of many documentaries about such subcultures as role-playing camp or spelling bee competitors. They’re focused, they’re awkward, and they’re fascinating.
The other quarter of the book teaches more about the history of Scrabble than I ever expected I would be interested to know – from it’s humble beginnings as a game developed by an out-of-work man during the depression to an American (and world-wide) classic. For example, did you know that Scrabble’s inventor only pocketed about a million dollars over the course of his lifetime for his invention? Seems like a rip-off for a game that’s remained popular for over 70 years in most countries around the world.
Fatsis writes in a lively fashion, even in his moments of geeking-out. He dissects a few games word-by-word, but fortunately doesn’t feel the need to do the same for every game he plays. (There are plenty of books out there about how to play Scrabble like a pro, if you’re interested.) The contentious relationship between the Scrabble die-hards and the people at Hasbro who own the game is also fascinating. While Hasbro recognizes it owns something bigger than a game, and honestly appears to treasure Scrabble, the die-hards seem to envision a world where competitive Scrabble gets played on television and can’t understand why the whole world doesn’t feel the same way.
As one who enjoys a casual game of Scrabble, and has two versions (travel and regular) of the game in my collection, this was a good read. It made me want to play, and I would imagine that was the point.