Stefan Fatsis is a familiar figure to many as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. In 1997, when he decided to write about the world of competitive Scrabble, he had no idea where studying the phenomenon would take him. He recounts the story of his experience in Word Freak, a wonderfully engaging narrative about the insular and somewhat oddball world of people who compete at the popular board game.
Many of the characters who play the game cheerfully admit they're social misfits. They provide rich material for Fatsis. Perhaps because of his prior experience with the game, the author discovered a kinship with their obsession with words. Soon Fatsis was not just covering Scrabble, he was competing himself—and taking the competition seriously.
Fatsis blends a reporter's eye for detail with a frank admiration of the eccentric players' abilities, whatever their social shortcomings. He's particularly awestruck by the attendees of an international tournament, many of whom barely speak English but know thousands of words.
As Fatsis gradually improves at the game, awakening to a new obsession and becoming a top-ranked player, the reader delights in his accomplishment. His thoroughly researched book also details the history of Scrabble—a tale that sometimes plays out like a corporate melodrama. Like Monopoly, another favorite American diversion, Scrabble was developed during the Depression as a means of passing the time. But word of mouth developed into perennial popularity, and the game went from a family-owned business to the property of a giant toy conglomerate.
In Word Freak, Fatsis also offers a few practical tips for living room players and competitors, making it clear that memorizing obscure word lists is the key. He indicates "phonies" or unacceptable words and even provides an appendix of terms he uses in the text that are not acceptable in Scrabble. A wonderfully readable work, Word Freak is a winner—both as a portrait of a subculture and as a journal of a seasoned competitor.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis.