17 November 2007

Stefan Fatsis - Word Freak

Fatsis is a Wall Street Journal correspondent, specialising in sport and business. He started writing a quirky article about the world of professional Scrabble, and realised it was a fertile enough topic to expand into a book - but only if he participated himself. So he spent a year endeavouring to get to the standard of the best in the world, and compete in the top division at the national championships in the US.

His start isn't auspicious. He plays some trial games, with top quality players giving him tips, and when one says he could have played 'CONGER' or CRONE' instead of the word he played, he admits he didn't know either word. At this point I considered that his basic vocabulary was so low (especially considering his profession) that no learning of word lists could possibly make up for it.

But he isn't deterred, and learns the 2 and 3 letter words, the essential building blocks of Scrabble. The main tactics of professional Scrabble though are to keep the board tight and build a rack so that a bingo (a word containing all 7 letters on a player's rack) can be played, gaining 50 bonus points. A lot of the book the techniques several top players have for learning the 7 and 8 letter words. It's meant to make them sound endearingly loopy and obsessed, which it does, but it's also rather dull.

The mechanical nature of the rote learning and application does seem to take the genius out of the game, but there is a lot of tactical nous required too. But mostly, it's a game for obsessives, dominated by oddball men rather than women, misfits, some of whom struggle to hold down a job. Fatsis is good at presenting these characters, as you'd expect from a journalist, and he makes friends with many of them, who encourage him in his ambition. It's funny on occasion, a little tragic, and not quite as fascinating as Fatsis believes it to be. But then, he's drawn into the obsession, which requires that he loses some perspective.


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