Monday, August 15, 2005

Word Freak

Every time I drop by the humungous National Bookstore in Cubao, I always leave with one or two purchases. This particular branch, which doubles as a warehouse of sorts, is chock full of books at bargain prices. The selection is good, albeit none too organized. The prices are somewhat higher than in Book Sale but at least they're not pre-owned, if not altogether new.

Image from Powell's

My visit last week netted me Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble by Stefan Fatsis, a writer for the Wall Street Journal. Fatsis took a year off from work to explore the strange and mysterious world of competitive Scrabble, in the process unleashing his own latent mania for the game. It's a fascinating book that deals with everything about the game, from its invention in the Depression by Alfred Butts to the present day owners of the game to the associations which run the tournaments. One interesting tidbit: Scrabble is actually owned by two companies, Hasbro in North America, and Mattel outside of North America.

The centerpiece of the book, though, are the eccentric characters who have dedicated their lives to -- nay, whose lives are defined by -- the board game that is Scrabble. Fatsis introduces us to many of them: an out-of-work pill-popping comedian, a perpetually angry man with pan-African ambitions, a gruff Viet Nam veteran, a deliberately homeless vagabond, a Texan entrepreneur, among others. These are the types of characters who are so in to the game that they spend all their time playing word games, developing strategies, and devising mnemonics. Some of them have gone as far as to memorize the entire Scrabble dictionaries. These are the people whom Fatsis has chosen as his guide to the world of Scrabble, and vicariously, they become ours as well.

In the world of competitive Scrabble, the words themselves are the rules. Meaning is irrelevant. What's important are the sequence of letters which correspond to the arrangements in the officially-recognized Scrabble dictionaries. Mr. Fatsis outlines some of the mnemonic tools some of the top players use to remember the 100,000+ words. In all honesty, the dedication that some of the players put into the game is frightening.

Overall, Fatsis is an excellent guide because early on he's moved from reporter to participant. Starting out with a rating of 1200, he made it his goal to get a 1700, or expert, rating, something he achieved in a little over a year. Fatsis draws you in with some intense play-by-play of critical games he's seen or played himself. His descriptions of the last few games he plays is truly nail-biting.

And the Philippines gets a passing mention. One passage which got me runs thus:

"I'm rooming with G.I. Joel in Melbourne. Since arriving a couple of days earlier, Joel has been suffering from his usual range of maladies.... Except for playing in two warmup tournaments and taking a trip to the zoo with a Filipino player on whom he has a crush, Joel has scarcely left the hotel."

Apparently, we had a team participate in the 1999 World Championships from whence the passage was taken. So that leads me to ask: how come I didn't know about the Scrabble society earlier on? Must look it up.

All told, a fascinating read.


  1. i love nbs-cubao!! got i moved your cheese from there.funny funny version of the real thing

  2. Hi, G. Resistance, as they say, is futile.