March 10, 2004

Word Freaks Revisited

Posted by Ed

Have you ever wondered where Scrabble champions come from? This week's Boston Globe Magazine may have part of the answer. The magazine includes a short article describing a pair of Massachusetts middle school students who'll be defending their National School Scrabble Championship at a tournament next month. Some Scrabble players, it seems, start out very young.

If you've ever read Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, you'll have some sense of what the world of competitive Scrabble is like. You can also find out about the Scrabble circuit from this National Post article about the Scrabble career of the novelist W. P. Kinsella, who's retired from writing and taken up game-playing. Here's an excerpt from the article:

Like all the others who participated, Kinsella is a Scrabble freak. He practises two hours a day on the Internet, playing 25 games at any given time. He regularly reads the Scrabble dictionary, hoping the words "will cling to me like lint." His strategy, he says, is to simply hope for good letter tiles.

"I like the competition," he said. "I am a lower division player and I can't play with the big dogs, never will, but I like finding weird words."

And yet, for a writer who once won the Stephen Leacock award for humour, he is surprisingly lackadaisical about the definition of the words. He doesn't care if he understands the words he spells out, as long as they are "good" -- meaning they are listed in the official Scrabble dictionary.

"I'm just looking for the points," he laughed. "Who cares what they mean?"

John Chew, director of the Toronto Club, says it's a common misconception that people who are well-read or hyper-articulate are the best at Scrabble. In fact, he says many mathematicians, such as himself, make the top players. The idea is to get the most points, not create the best or most flashy words -- a rookie mistake.

"It takes the ability to memorize large quantities of otherwise useless information," he said. "You need solid analytical skills, the ability to perform under pressure, and an unshaken confidence in the laws of probability, so that when you draw nothing but vowels you know you will eventually get your consonants later."

This passage encapsulates, for me, both the appeal and the downside to competitive Scrabble. I love words, enjoy anagramming, and memorize things easily; I also enjoy the strategic side of the game. To be really competitive on the Scrabble circuit, though, you need to memorize large numbers of words, without necessarily having any sense of what they mean. Too much seems to depend on whether you know that "lek" and "qat" are words, which--for me--makes the competitive game seem more than a bit silly.

Posted by Ed at March 10, 2004 12:44 PM


I'm pleased to see that W.P. Kinsella has retired from writing. A new generation of unsuspecting readers can be spared the work of a pedestrian writer who was foolishly built up because of his association with baseball in so many of his stories and occasional novels.

The real hope of course would be that Sophie Kinsella, the creator of those Shopaholic books, would also retire from writing and take up on the professional scrabble circuit, where the likes of Ray Sun could beat her down

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