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

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  3,913 ratings  ·  549 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Karen
Who woulda thunk a book about Scrabble could be this engaging? The author quit his job (or took a sabbatical, I guess) to play Scrabble for two years and got his rating up above 1700 (Expert level). This book is about what it took to do that, the various quirky people he encountered at the parks and tournaments where he played, how Scrabble was invented and marketed and sold ... the whole shebang. Toward the very end of the book, he suggests why Scrabble gets such a hold on people; unlike some o ...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
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
Trevor
First of all I saw a film called "Word Wars" which quickly became one of my favourite documentaries of all time and then a friend of mine at work lent me this book - and if you haven't read this or seen the film they are probably priorities.

This is the sort of book that allows you to say to yourself, "Gosh, truth really is stranger than fiction." Or perhaps, "It really does take all sorts to make the world". Either way, one is stuck with cliches.

I've never been very good at word games - somethi
...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
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
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 Puskar-Pasewicz
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
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
Randal
Jul 10, 2015 Randal rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Obsessive Woody Allen fans. Wait, is that redundant?
Shelves: nonfiction
This is, first and foremost, a memoir. Fatsis ostensibly sets out to tell the tale of the weirdos and cranks who people the world of high-end Scrabble (sorry, I won't use the all-caps trademark spelling), but this universe soon revolves around a fixed star and that is Fatsis. He barely gets started describing the established players when he "gives in" to the lure of trying to match them. That part of the book feels as scripted as reality TV, like it was part of the pitch to have the author pulle ...more
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
Amy
Jan 15, 2015 Amy rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: will
I really enjoyed this book initially and found a lot of learn about scrabble and the competitive players. Then about 50% in, I thought "This book should end now". I got the point. Some scrabble players are a little crazy. Being good at something can be consuming. Let there be heartbreak and triumph. Would totally recommend reading 50% of this book!
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!
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 De Waelsche
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.
VeganMedusa
A fascinating look at the world of competitive Scrabble, but I was really put off by the author's sexism. Women are only mentioned as novices, enthusiasts (meaning hobbyists), or dismissed by age as blue-hairs or middle-aged.
Mike Mcconnell
There seems to be a clear coefficient running through this book. More words = Less social skill. Nonetheless the players are impressive, the factual sections are interesting and the anecdotes geeky and lovable.
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Stefan Fatsis is an author, reporter and familiar voice to public-radio listeners nationwide.
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