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Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players

3.8 of 5 stars 3.80  ·  rating details  ·  3,551 ratings  ·  529 reviews
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 ho...more
Paperback, 372 pages
Published July 30th 2002 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 2001)
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Community Reviews

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Tung
Fatsis, a columnist for various NY magazines, took a year off to investigate the world of competitive Scrabble. As someone who makes a living with words, and who grew up playing Scrabble, Fatsis does more than investigate this world; he immerses himself in it. The book functions half as nonfiction documentary, and half as memoir, as Fatsis details both the professional circuit and his rise through its ranks. Fatsis does a good job of balancing details of Scrabble’s history (both the history of t...more
Dave-O
Stephen Fatsis writes a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat book on the quirky, obsessive, very male-dominated world of competitive Scrabble playing. Although the cast of characters is fascinating enough, I was more interested in Fatsis' own transformation from "living room" player to a high-ranking qualifier in major tournaments. He describes his initial frustration at losing to the blue hair set to even more frustration at not grasping expert game strategies. He learns that in order to become a cham...more
Ulysses
I should qualify my rating here by saying that I did not in fact like this book, as the literal interpretation of Goodreads' three-star rating would indicate-- I thought it was more of a two-star book ("it was OK")-- but I'm giving it a bonus star, because it contains a most valuable lesson that I don't know whether I could have learned so quickly and easily, had I not read this book.

As for the book itself: it's pretty hard to like, because the voice of the author, which also doubles as the pers...more
Cheryl
Yes, I know five stars are too many. It's not an 'amazing' or perfect book. But I do think that many of us who empathize with the characters would enjoy this tremendously, and I also think that people who know someone who obsesses over a game, any game, would benefit from reading this and understanding another aspect of the human condition. Also, years later, I still remember parts of this book every time I play a word game.
bookczuk
Original review written February 9, 2004
I found this book a fascinating example of how diverse and quirky people can be. I love Scrabble, and am a fairly decent "living room" player. Stepping into the world of competitive playing was an eye opener. I am a literate, well educated, articulate person. I was totally stumped by so many of the words that players came up with in the stress of competition. It was a bit frustrating for me, as each time I came across a new word I had to reach for the dic...more
Sharyl
This is a fascinating documentary-style look into the subculture of elite Scrabble players, some of whom I will remember (and worry about) for a long time.

Fatsis also includes an interesting history of the game itself. Invented during the depression by an out of work architect named Alfred Butts, its popularity spread at first by word of mouth, until the orders got to be too much for Mr. Butts, who then turned it over to James Brunot, the man who chose the name Scrabble. (Alfred Butts had calle...more
Laura Zimmerman
As a pretty pedestrian Scrabble player, I'm interested in the people who play the game competitively (on a competitive circuit). Word Freak promised to give me a glimpse into the Scrabble world so I gave it a try.

Mr. Fatsis, whose word puzzles and games I enjoy in NPR, has written a compelling book about Scrabble players, the competitions, how players prepare, and his own education about the game. He gets to know some of the players fairly well and is able to describe their idiosyncracies as ind...more
Jane Hoppe
I thought I was a word freak. After reading the book Word Freak,however, I realize I'm apparently just a lover of words. I'm fascinated by words for their meanings, their specificity, their nuances, their stories, their sounds. Scrabble, for me, is just plain fun. The word freaks described by Fatsis memorize words for competitive gain in Scrabble tournaments. His word freaks are strategists, often obsessed, often genius.

Fatsis introduces readers to the interesting world of competitive Scrabble....more
Deborah
You probably need to be a Scrabble enthusiast or some other kind of word nerd (spelling, crossword puzzles) to really enjoy this book. I am, so I did. The intricate technicalities of playing Scrabble at a stratospheric level were the most interesting things in the book.

I was taken aback, however, by Fatsis's sexism. Many times he scoffs at having to play middle-aged women or "blue hairs." As someone who fits into the first group, I could not find myself rooting for Fatsis as the story increasing...more
Nancy
Jan 03, 2008 Nancy rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommended to Nancy by: Gwen Gray
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Blair Conrad
A somewhat interesting view into the world of competitive Scrabble. If you liked Wordplay, you'll probably like this. I enjoyed learning about the mechanics of tournament play and the kinds of things people do to improve their game. Unfortunately, the book dragged at times. The mini-biographies of some of the players really went on too long and in most cases didn't really add much to my understanding of them or the game. I did find that when the book became more memoirlike - focusing on Fatsis's...more
Nicole
This is a great book for scrabble nerds who understand the orgasmic elation of getting 7 letter bingos on a triple word score, watching with sadistic fervor your score double the points of your opponent. Scrabble is a sub-world of cultural and social norms where the most otherwise awkward, less than average weirdos become more than accepted, they become glorified champions. And now thanks to this book and the subsequent documentaries that followed, scrabble is now covered by ESPN. It has risen a...more
Margie
Although it provides fascinating insight into the world of competitive Scrabble, this book also reminded me that what I dislike about Scrabble is the lack of context for words. I like using words and knowing what they mean; Scrabble involves only memorizing particular patterns of letters. As pointed out in the book, one doesn't even need to speak English to play in English, so long as one has memorized the spellings.

That being said, Fatsis does a fine job of drawing us into a world of obsession....more
Margaret
I feel a bit guilty listing this as "read," because I really only read the first third or so. I just couldn't get into it...I don't know if I'm just too distracted by life at the moment since I had a very similar criticism about another book that I was just reading, but I almost had to keep forcing myself to give this a try. Maybe I expected the real-life characters to be more likeable, kind-of like the documentary version of competitive Scrabble, Word Play. Anyhoo, I would love to know if I'm t...more
Erin
I can't imagine a more readable book about the history of Scrabble and the world of competitive Scrabble players. That said, a book about Scrabble is only so interesting unless you are a Scrabble enthusiast (which I'm not). I loved all the geeky linguistic stuff, but found myself bored by the memoir elements. I just didn't care about the author's journey to expert status, although it was a good way to demonstrate the work it takes to be an expert. I'd recommend it to Scrabble lovers, but unless...more
meg
May 20, 2007 meg rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: scrabble lovers, but only the ones who are in it for the points
hmm. i was fully expecting to love this book, but i had to stop a few chapters in. there was some interesting views into the world of competitive scrabble and portraits of its motely competitors, but i was bugged by the emphasis of points over love of new and interesting words. so much of it is about memorization and winning tactics, which, i guess is what the competition part is all about... but it just made me want to go play scrabble for fun instead of reading about all the people who take it...more
Adam Gray
I have always loved Scrabble and had been meaning to read this book for a long time. It didn't disappoint. The behind-the-scenes look into the professional Scrabble circuit felt genuine and was filled with the freaks and eccentrics that I was hoping to find. Fatsis' writing could get a bit repetitive at times as he made every effort to let us know that he was both a journalist and a Scrabble junkie, but overall the combination of his personal saga and his analysis of the Scrabble world was very...more
Caroline
Well, I guess there is a book about everything, even the world of competitive Scrabble.

If I remember correctly, Tom and I found this at a library used book sale, read the back, exchanged a couple of "Eh, why not?"s and added it to our haul. A few months after that, Stefan Fatsis came out with another book and scheduled a book talk at Politics & Prose. We decided to attend. It was an interesting enough talk, but one thing I noticed was that during the Q&A, those doing the questioning cont...more
Shannon
I’ve had his book sitting on my shelf for a while, and I finally decided to read it. I remember it being a best seller with great reviews so I was expecting a fun breezy read about competitive scrabble. What it is a slog that takes all the fun out of scrabble and it’s unexpectedly sexist. I’m about halfway through and I might not finish, which is seriously rare for me.

The author engaged in scrabble tournaments and one thing I’ve learned is that if you want to take all the fun out of scrabble the...more
Jesse
Sep 26, 2007 Jesse rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone.
This book wins. What can you possibly learn about life from people who obessively play scrabble as their hobby and sometimes as their default profession? Quite a lot - about passion, about friendships between people - about being intensely devoted to something because you love it, not because it's popular or because others understand it. And the best part about it is you even start to catch a bit of enthusasm for playing scrabble! Read it. You'll like it.
Erica
Pros (why I gave it the number of stars that I did):
- First of all, I have a brother who is a linguistics professor and has played chess competitively for years. My dad has played professional foosball for over 35 years off and on, including placing at Worlds (highest= 3rd place) in Doubles back in the 80s/90s. Those factors are probably big reasons why I liked this book and "got" many parts of it (i.e. the word studies and competition play)
- The characters and competitions. I had a hunch that t...more
Keith Moser
Excellent book which makes Professional Scrabble as exciting as any other sporting event.... Made me want to try to find a local Scrabble club to start playing competitively when I first read this in college a decade ago (did I really just write that?!) I never would have memorized all the legal 2-letter words had it not been for this book!
Evan
An interesting idea for a story, and definitely some interesting tips for scrabble playing (although the tips are always tempered by the fact the play the "complete" game, you need to memorize the entire scrabble dictionary.) More to the point, though, the book was not particularly well-written or engaging. I would have been interested in reading the blow-by-blow winning tournament moves, but Fatsis relies waaaay too heavily on just listing words. Words that no one besides 10-20 professional scr...more
Nitya
For any self prescribed scrabble freak/geek/nerd/aficianado this is an interesting read. How one reporter who was writing about the world of scrabble competitors got sucked into the game himself. Includes a lot of the game's history and the strategies the highly ranked players use.
Jennifer Zinn
I'm glad I waited until I understood more able competitive Scrabble before reading this. I just know that I won't aspire to be an expert player because I don't have the kind of drive to learn words that the people in the book have.
Martaelag
I'm torn about how to rate this book. On the one hand, I found it a compelling story about the world of competitive Scrabble, which enkindled my interest in the game. On the other, the author's demeaning treatment of his subjects was difficult to stomach. From one section alone: "It's a fact of Scrabble that the novice and intermediate ranks are heavy, literally and figuratively, with middle-aged women..." "I'm not Brian, with a gifted memory and a powerful Scrabble work ethic and whatever missi...more
Natan
You'll never view a Scrabble board the same way after this.

Also, it's not the book that you'd expect to find Halakhic discussions in, but there it is.
Doug
The underworld of competitive Scrabble. I found the lives of word freaks very interesting. The book is a bit tedious at times, but worth the read.
James
A fascinating glimpse into the quirky lives of competitive Scrabble players. Recommended for fans of the game.
Leata Holloway
Oh god. OCD, that's all I have to say.

Wait, no. Also this: Do you think you're good at Scrabble? You aren't.
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Stefan Fatsis is an author, reporter and familiar voice to public-radio listeners nationwide.
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