Becoming a ‘Word Freak’

A student writes about his journey into the world of competitive Scrabble.

Although I spent most of my early childhood playing chess, when I found Scrabble I found a passion I never expected.

One day in my early teens, I saw a Scrabble computer game for sale at OfficeMax. My parents let me buy it, adding one more hobby to pass the lazy hours of summer.

Soon after that, my mom brought home a book for me. It was called “Word Freak,” by Stefan Fatsis. I had never been an avid reader, but that didn’t stop me from devouring the 366-page hardbound book.

The read introduced me to the world of competitive Scrabble. I was surprised to find that people actually played Scrabble for money and spent their time memorizing the dictionary to do it.

Nerdy? Sure.

Worth my time? You bet.

Fast forward nearly five years I’ve become something of a real-life competitive Scrabble player.

College consumes a lot of time, though, so I can’t play Scrabble as much as I’d like. In fact, I hadn’t played a game for 10 months up until this summer. But when I was finished with school for the semester, I was ready to get back in the game literally.

I went to the locally sanctioned club and played three games. I lost all of them. How encouraging is that?

For me, very.

I scanned the Scrabble tournament list. I saw one scheduled in Bethesda, Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C. The icing on the cake is that Fatsis, the person who lured me into this world, would be playing there with his daughter.

I hastily looked up bus routes to the country’s capital.

There was a bus leaving Philly around 3 a.m. and arriving in D.C. shortly before 7 a.m. “This might work,” I thought to myself.

After throwing a few meager belongings into my backpack, I found myself aboard a Megabus in the middle of the night. I barely slept en route, but I enjoyed an extra moment of shut-eye at the station before a security guard yelled at me. It was time to go.

I took the metro to Bethesda arriving just in time. I made sure I had my copy of “Word Freak” for a signature from Fatsis.

I saw myself listed as the top seed among 12 players in the second of three divisions, with a rating of 1293, making me an intermediate player. Since I hadn’t played in months, I had little to no expectation of winning.

My first round was against the lowest rated player of the 12 in my division. When I tried to pass “BENCHMAT” off as a word, my opponent expectedly challenged it off the board, costing me points and a turn. I lost, 420-366. I realized that I still hadn’t won a game of Scrabble in almost a year.

I had better luck during the next game, playing words like “WAIF” and “THESPIAN” for high points. Finally, I earned a long-awaited victory.

My record was 3-1 by the time I was heading to lunch.

I remembered why I loved this game.

I headed to Chipotle, not expecting to see Fatsis. But there he was. I sparked up a conversation, mentioning my connection to his book. It’s been 17 years since the book’s publishing, but I could tell by his excitement that this attention never gets old to him.

Back to the game: “FINESSE,” “JIGSAWS,” “RIGATONI.” I won two more times, finding myself in first place with just two more games to go.

I matched up with Fatsis’ daughter, Chloe Fatsis, who sat in second with an identical record but slightly fewer points. Back and forth we go: She played “MILLINER,” I played “DRAGONS,” she played “ARMOIRE,” I played “JOVIAL.”

Finally, with some skill, as well as the luck of the draw, I walked away with a 384-376 victory. And even more of a plus, I wasn’t yet feeling the effects of virtually no sleep.

We were still in first and second place, respectively, so we squared up again for one final round. The pressure was on.

This time, the tiles fell in my favor, allowing me to scatter “GURU,” “COLOGNE” and “REMINDS” across the board winning the tournament with a score of 445-382 and earning the coveted $225 prize.

I left with, “See you in the expert division,” written in my book by Stefan Fatsis.

On this day, I realized that sometimes it pays off to not sleep in on a Saturday.

1 Comment

  1. I have loved the game Scrabble(the physical one with a plastic score board, letter holder etc) since I was a child but never knew it could be a competitive game. Our family always packed it even when we went on long train journeys in India!
    Loved reading your story Joshua! Congratulations on the victory!

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