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Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of…

by Stefan Fatsis

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,565408,928 (3.85)55
Scrabble may be truly called America's game. But for every group of "living-room players" there is someone who is "at one with the board." In Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis introduces readers to those few, exploring the underground world of colorful characters for which the Scrabble game is life-playing competitively in tournaments across the country. It is also the story of how the Scrabble game was invented by an unemployed architect during the Great Depression and how it has grown into the hugely successful, challenging, and beloved game it is today. Along the way, Fatsis chronicles his own obsession with the game and his development as a player from novice to expert. More than a book about hardcore Scrabble players, Word Freak is also an examination of notions of brilliance, memory, language, competition, and the mind that celebrates the uncanny creative powers in us all. A Book Sense 76 pick.… (more)
  1. 30
    The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Genuises Who Make Up America's Top HighSchool Chess Team by Michael Weinreb (jseger9000)
    jseger9000: Both books are filled with profiles of unusual people who devote time and resources to competitively play something most of us consider a pastime.
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    Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! by Bob Harris (jseger9000)
  3. 00
    Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer (LynnB)
    LynnB: Also written by a journalist who becomes a competitor,this book looks at the world of competitive memorization.
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    Searching for Kingly Critter : a deliciously different tale of obsession and nostalgia by Barry Divola (Anonymous user)
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» See also 55 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Word Freak was lent to me by a person who I was losing pretty badly to in Words With Friends. Perhaps he thought it would help me raise my game. Fatsis is a journalist who in short order, about two years, became an expert division one Scrabble player, attaining a rank of 1733. His book has chapters on the history and origins of the game, its commercialization and continuing success, and a number of the more colorful characters or "freaks" who are among the upper echelon players and who serve as coaches and mentors for Fatsis's own trajectory from journeyman to top flight tournament player. This "it takes a community to make a champion" vibe reminded me of all the players who helped prodigy Beth Harmon face the Russian chess masters in the popular Netflix documentary, The Queen's Gambit. Fatsis himself draws other parallels between the two games: the fanatic devotion, the innate talent, the tens of thousands of hours of study, the strategizing. But if top flight chess players are often depicted as veering on the edge of insanity, Fatsis's fellow gamers are more like high school misfits and nerds. At the end of the day, I learned a lot about how Fatsis improved his game through incessant study of dictionaries and word lists. Through anagramming, playing tons of games with his new friends, entering tournaments, studying games played, analyzing key moves, creating anamonic phrases, and much much more. That said, this book, did not make me better at Words with Friends. But it was an amusing and enjoyable glimpse into a world filled with zany and passionate and intelligent word freaks. They were great company. ( )
  OccassionalRead | Nov 29, 2020 |
This is a real departure from my normal read but it was really a very interesting story. Stefan Fatsis took a year off from his job as a sports writer for Wall Street Journal and joined the ranks of the (very whacky) tournament Scrabble players. I don't even play Scrabble and found this book wonderful. ( )
  susandennis | Jun 5, 2020 |
Some great immersion reporting. Not only did Stefan Fatsis do his research on the history of the game but he got to personally know, befriend, and learn from the expert players. He got to know the hardcore players and became one himself.

It was interesting to read about the hardcore, obsessive players and how the game works in the competitive world. The scoring, the dictionaries, the tactics, the everything.

The great thing about reading is that I can learn about something without having to do it myself. I love Scrabble enough to read a book about it but not enough to put the time and energy into studying word lists and memorizing anagrams.

Good read.

Oh, and the book is full of my GRE vocabulary like whoa. ( )
  alyssajp | Jul 29, 2019 |
I couldn't finish it. You would think that a book about a word game would not need to resort to crude and foul language to describe events and ideas. ( )
  wrightja2000 | Sep 6, 2018 |
My favorite game is Scrabble. But I play it casually compared to the people in this book. The author is a reporter who took an assignment to write about Scrabble tournaments. Enjoying the game himself as a "living room player," he quickly became an insider in the odd subculture of Scrabble fanatics. Hung out with the "parkies" in New York City, went to Scrabble clubs, learned from some of the best how to study word lists, and worked his way up to the level of the pros.

So the book is a mix of descriptive journalism and personal endeavor to master the game, character studies on some of the top players (fairly eccentric people), history of the game itself (invented during the Depression by a guy named Albert Butts- that chapter was really interesting), involvement of the two companies that own rights to the game, how Scrabble tournaments are conducted, difference between acceptable words in American and British English, arguments between players about acceptable words and best methods of study, and so on.

Reading about the tournaments and worldwide competitions was pretty intriguing. It's not the same now, with online versions of the game that let you immediately look things up. During the time period Fatsis describes, word lists were tediously worked out by hand, serious top-level players poring through the dictionaries to compile them. The kind of mental gymnastics people play with anagrams, finding letter combinations and learning strategies to make the best play based on probabilities are beyond me. I never write down my racks throughout a whole game to study missed possibilities later, or play games against myself for practice. But the book didn't spoil it for me either (I already knew I'm not that good): after finishing the read I invited my teen daughter to play a round of Scrabble, and it was just as fun as ever.

from the Dogear Diary ( )
  jeane | Dec 11, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
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Epigraph
"Virtually everyone suffers from the deeply ingrained habit of considering language as a medium of communication."

-- Dimitri Borgmann, Language on Vacation
"Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes, there was nothing but details, almost contiguous details."

-- Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes, the Memorious"
"Words, words, words. I'm sick of words."

-- Eliza Doolittle, My Fair Lady
Dedication
For Lampros, Cindy, and Michael
First words
The world of games and the world of words are governed by their own sets of elaborate rules. (Author's Note)
The cops arrive, as they always do, their Aegean blue NYPD cruiser bumping onto the sidewalk and into the northwest corner of Washington Square park.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (4)

Scrabble may be truly called America's game. But for every group of "living-room players" there is someone who is "at one with the board." In Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis introduces readers to those few, exploring the underground world of colorful characters for which the Scrabble game is life-playing competitively in tournaments across the country. It is also the story of how the Scrabble game was invented by an unemployed architect during the Great Depression and how it has grown into the hugely successful, challenging, and beloved game it is today. Along the way, Fatsis chronicles his own obsession with the game and his development as a player from novice to expert. More than a book about hardcore Scrabble players, Word Freak is also an examination of notions of brilliance, memory, language, competition, and the mind that celebrates the uncanny creative powers in us all. A Book Sense 76 pick.

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Haiku summary
Compulsive gamer
proves to himself and us
he's a Natural.
(SomeGuyInVirginia)

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