October 24, 2002

Word Freaks, Stefan Fatsis

Word Freaks would have been mildly entertaining had Fatsis stuck to the mocking outsider role as the author of Them mostly did. Scrabble hustlers and pros are, or include, enough obsessive loser types to fill a melancholy evening.

Fatsis was authentically sucked in, though. He took a year off his job and worked hard enough at Scrabble - word memorization, psychology, theory, playing lots and lots of games - to compete in the top rank nationally. This is modestly interesting as a quest-story, mostly because he spends so much time with the long term obsessives.

The specialized book he didn't quite write is about the real strategies of Scrabble. For instance, if you can't memorize all the legal words ( a few can), which do you memorize? How do you sort the ones you do know? Choose which letters to leave in your rack? Make promising sections of the board open to you and closed to your opponent? There are newsletters seriously devoted to these questions, complete with computer analyses of possible games after a hard choice.

Fatsis and several champions find that that the glory of the game only comes with these strategic concerns, playing with nearly all words at your command and against someone of similar skill. There aren't many of these people; it takes serious study for most people to learn even a significant fraction of the words legal in U.S. or U.K. competition. This is a dictionary issue: There are two overlapping Scrabble competition dictionaries, one mostly North American, one from England: the rest of the world mostly plays with both. Neither is exactly a dictionary of any language used for anything but Scrabble. The shared dictionary is important not just to decide challenges to a words legality, but because the strategic choices often depend on statistical knowledge of legal words vs. the letters that haven't been played.

It's possible that strategic Scrabble would be more common if the competition dictionary was smaller, then. More people would know enough words to start playing the 'total game'. Leaving out real words is heresy to me, an amateur player who enjoys making a good joke as much as points, but serious Scrabble players mostly don't play words as words; they're playing something like two dimensional poker or blackjack, with a large but almost arbitrary set of scoring hands. However those who know enough to know the difference between knowing some words and knowing enough words to play strategy have already invested a lot in learning so many words. They would have to have a remarkably pure love of the game to advocate trimming the word lists. So wrote clew in History (21st c.).

And thus wrote others:
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