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Stefan Fatsis is the bestselling author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players and Wild and Outside: How a Renegade Minor League Revived the Spirit of Baseball in America’s Heartland. He reported on sports for more than a decade for The Wall Street Journal and talks about sports every week on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His work also has appeared on the websites Slate and Deadspin. Stefan lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Melissa Block, and their daughter, Chloe.
When did you start playing Scrabble?
Like most people, I played Scrabble casually growing up. But I didn’t take the game seriously until my late twenties, when a girlfriend and I toted our travel set on vacations. She gave me a copy of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary with the following inscription: “For consultation only. NO memorizing!” I abided by her request, but I won too often. When our relationship ended, the book and the Scrabble board were mine. A few years later, some friends had started playing the game regularly and I joined in. At the same time, I was searching for a quirky subculture to write about, and I called the director of the National Scrabble Association and proposed a match. I won big, drawing all the good tiles from the bag. I quickly discovered the regular Scrabble game in New York’s Washington Square Park and soon after found myself studying word lists, playing alone on the living room floor of my Brooklyn apartment, and attending the weekly meetings of the Manhattan Scrabble Club. I was hooked.
How does competitive Scrabble differ from the game played at home?
There are several key differences. Almost every competitive player immediately learns all of the ninety-six two-letter words acceptable in the game. (AA, AB, AD, AE, AG…;) and the thousand or so three letter words. Those are the building blocks of Scrabble. Unlike at home, the competitive version of the game is almost always a one-on-one pursuit. It is played with a time limit, usually twenty-five minutes per player per game. Players use plastic tiles rather than wooden ones. They keep track of the letters as they are placed on the board. And “challenges” are adjudicated using a book that consists of a list of more than 110,000 words, sans definitions. Top players routinely score in excess of 400 points per game, nearly twice as much as the typical living room player, and make an average of two bingos per game. Finally, money changes hands. Tournament prizes range from one hundred bucks or so at one-day events to $25,000 at the National Scrabble Championship. For fun, players often stake a few bucks per game and a few cents for the difference in the final score.
Is there a pattern of behaviors or abilities shared by many top-level Scrabble players? Is there a Scrabble type?
Scrabble’s little secret us that it’s not really about words but about math. At the highest levels, the game is about determining probabilities, calculating odds, and discovering combinations—and then using that information to make strategic decisions. It’s no coincidence that many of the top players are computer programmers, engineers, accountants, or former math majors. Good players also have a “board vision”—a spacial skill that allows them to process the complex geometry of the board quickly and evaluate potential plays. They also share a discipline, a willingness to devote years of their lives to learning tens of thousands of words. Competitive Scrabble is about evenly divided along gender lines, but the top experts are almost exclusively men, who seem more willing to commit their lives to the game (or perhaps less able not to do so). The universe of players is diverse—from little old ladies who play for fun to those whose existence depends upon it. It’s a gorgeous mosaic; the characters in Word Freak range from a pill-popping standup comic to a Zen master to a black power advocate to an options trader to an aging communist to a Harvard math Ph.D.
Tell us about the history of Scrabble.
In the early 1930’s, an unemployed architect named Alfred Butts decided to invent a word game as a way to make some money and provide people with a diversion during the Depression. To arrive at the proper letter distribution, Butts meticulously counted words and letters on the pages of various newspapers and magazines. His first game, called Lexico, was a word-formation game that didn’t involve a board. When sales of that proved dismal, Butts over time created the now-familiar board and tested the new game on his wife, Nina, and his friends. But Butts was a poor businessman and couldn’t persuade any toy or games company to make or sell it. Finally, a social worker named James Brunot who had played the game proposed taking over production in 1948. Sales were slow at first, but exploded almost overnight in 1952. Scrabble became a sensation, the biggest-selling startup in toy-industry history. Brunot’s little company couldn’t handle the flood of orders, and he handed over production and marketing to Selchow & Righter. Today, the rights to Scrabble are owned by Hasbro in North America and Mattel in the rest of the world. More than 100 million Scrabble sets have been sold worldwide and the game is played in two dozen languages.
What were your goals in becoming a competitive player?
From the outset, I wanted to understand how the best players unscrambled words so well, how they recalled thousands of words from the recesses of memory, and how they performed under pressure. But I didn’t think I could become like them. I thought they were programmed far too differently from me for that to happen. Once I started playing in tournaments, though, I realized that while some of the differences between me—a Scrabble everyman, with no strong predisposition toward success in this game of strategy and chance—and them were insurmountable, many weren’t. Becoming an expert Scrabble player required time and dedication—a willingness to dive into the language, to learn thousands of words, and to study strategy. At my peak, I was studying and playing Scrabble twenty or thirty hours a week and entering tournaments twice a month. Scrabble took over my life, and I loved it.
So how good are you?
I’m an “expert”. Scrabble uses a rating system patterned after one used in competitive chess. Ratings range from a low of about 500 to over 2000. There are no specific designations like “Master” and “Grand Master” as there are in chess, but, generally speaking, ratings below 1200 are considered novice, between 1200 and 1600 intermediate, and above 1600 expert. Scrabble tournaments are broken into divisions on or close to those cutoffs. After my first tournament, I got a rating of 761; these days I’m about 1700, roughly 200th out of 2,300 tournament players in North America.
How did you improve so much?
I studied a lot, played a lot, and had a teacher. Joe Edley, the Zen master, was my sensei. During the course of the book, I visit Joe for periodic training sessions that help me understand both the fundamentals, like which words to learn and how to learn them, to the “inner game” of Scrabble, the mental discipline that would help me become a better player. Like most players, I soaked up the two-and three-letter words quickly. And then I moved on to learning “bingos,” that is, the seven and eight-letter words that score the most points in the game. I studied those in order of the probability that they might appear on my rack. Over time, I learned thousands of bingos, plus 4,000 four-letter words and thousands of five-letter words, too. And that’s nothing compared to what the very best manage to digest, retain, and recall when they most need to.
Didn’t you get tired of learning words that didn’t have any use in “real life”?
For me and others like me, Scrabble is real life. But it doesn’t mean accepting what for many people is difficult to accept: that for the limited purpose of playing this game, the meanings of the words are meaningless. Some top players love etymologies and definitions. Some don’t care about them at all, describing words as “letter strings” whose utility is simply to score points in this game. I didn’t initially have an innate ability to digest thousands of words and their meanings, too, so the only way to get better was just to learn and memorize. With that comes curiousity, of course; you wind up looking up the definition of numerous words. And an appreciation for the aesthetic beauty and flexibility of language—that PFFT and CWRTH can be words, or that INCITES can be extended into ZINCITES, or that words can have related and sometimes humorous anagrams, like SENATOR, ATONERS, and TREASON.
So how has Scrabble changed your life? Have you learned anything from your immersion in the game—besides all those words?
I’m certainly not the same person I was when I began this quest for Scrabble greatness. Some of the changes are behavioral, a kind of occupational hazard that comes with the game; for instance, I try to anagram most everything in sight, from names on road signs to restaurant menus. But it’s more than the words themselves. It’s how I think. Scrabble, the purpose of which is to convert chaos into order, has helped me assimilate mounds of information more easily and think more logically. It’s made me realize that almost no discipline is out of reach if you are willing to work hard enough at it. It’s filled me with boundless affection, respect, and downright awe for a group of people I couldn’t have fathomed a year ago. I’ve been a journalist going on twenty years now, yet I never realized just how powerful words can be. It’s like Jim Bouton said: “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
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