Word Freak is a chronicle of one man's (author Stefan Fatsis) three-year descent into madness. Well, not quite. Okay, maybe madness is a bad term to describe competitive SCRABBLE.

Fatsis' journey begins in late-summer 1997, in New York. He starts by attending pick-up SCRABBLE games held at Manhattan's Washington Square Park. Here, he begins to scratch the surface of the culture of the game, especially the varied characters that play it seriously. Fatsis interviews, and later befriends, many of the regulars on the U.S. SCRABBLE scene: former national champion and National SCRABBLE Association honcho Joe Edley, G.I. (Gastrointestinal) Joel Sherman, diet supplement junkie Matt Graham and Marlon Hill (SCRABBLE's angry black man). The author also makes a pilgrimage, ostensibly for research, to the home of Alfred Mosher Butts, the inventor of the game.

The lure of Word Freak isn't just the player profiles, nor is it the telling of much of the history of SCRABBLE. What draws the reader in is Fatsis' own progress as a competitive player. Within the three years, he progressed from a "good living room player" to an expert ranking of 1721 -- SCRABBLE uses the same Elo rating system as chess. Fatsis follows the E2 tenet of Node What You Know to a tee, as he studies word lists and the Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary to expand his vocabulary. He also enters dozens of tournaments across the country, even winning a handful. Fatsis eventually describes his new hobby as an addiction. (Apparently, not quite an addiction, as Fatsis kept his job working for the New York Times and managed to avoid alienating his fiancee entirely.)

I couldn't resist the book, being a living room player myself. I bought the book for my mother's birthday (some six months hence) on the surface, but also because I wanted to read it for myself. Do yourself a favor...buy a copy for a friend. But read it first.

Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE players, © 2001 by Stefan Fatsis. Published 2002 by Penguin Books, New York, NY, 372 pp.

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