the summer, Gazette Senior
Editor Samuel Hughes spoke with
Stefan Fatsis about his new book and his ongoing obsession with
Howd you get interested in Scrabble?
Like most people, I played the game as a kid, and I played in
high school a lot with a friend. Wed hang out and play games late
at night and listen to bad rock music. I really started playing
a lot with a girlfriend, like many people do, and when that relationship
ended, I kind of stopped playing.
I knew that this world existed. Id read magazine articles; Id
read a piece in Sports Illustrated a few years ago; and I
was looking for something to do. I knew I loved the game, loved
to play, and I have this predisposition toward obsession and words.
I thought, Maybe this is an interesting world.
It became a slippery slope.
It was a slippery slope. Two things sort of happened simultaneously.
I got interested in the word part and I found myself playing a lot
by myself and studying two-letter words and three-letter words,
then I went to this world championship in 1997 and for the first
time met the characters, people who play the game intensively, and
I was drawn to them. They struck me as a writers dream. They were
colorful and talkative and quirky, but beyond that they were so
passionate about what they were doing and so brilliant at what they
were doing that I was drawn to their skill and I kind of wanted
to be like them. I wanted to learn how to anagramto come up with
the beautiful words that they were spinning out on this Scrabble
What is the basis of the appeal of Scrabble?
I think that it is deeply ingrained in all of us. We use words
to write; we use words to communicate in a spoken waywe are assaulted
by language. It is fundamental to our being. Its what sets us apart
from other animals, and because of that, it is natural to want to
take it and deconstruct it in some way. Breaking down the language
is something that people have been doing for centuries.
was created during the Depression, but it didnt become successful
until after the war. The notion of leisure time and education came
together and Scrabble was a logical fitit was a way to show off
that were smart. I mean, were competing here with the Russians
to demonstrate our intelligence, and we had all this time on our
once a game takes root in society its got to be about more than
just some temporary social force; its got to be something very
seminal to what we do and how we think. And Scrabble has managed
to combine the language thats so basic to how we live with the
mathematics, which is so central to how certain people live.
Was there a eureka moment for you when you decided to actually
write the book?
My journalistic antennae were always up; I had written one book
before and I was interested in doing another one. Initially I thought,
This is great. Ill do a book. But the playing overcame the instinct.
I became so obsessed and interested in the game and in competing
and going to tournaments and getting my rating up that I procrastinated,
like many writers do. It took me almost two years to actually write
a book proposal. In a way, it turned out to be a good thing, because
it allowed me to develop some level of competence in the game. It
really took me three years to achieve what I wanted to achieve in
the game, and Im still sort of a rank hack.
You went from being a good living-room player to an expert.
I did. Well, for the first year or two I was a hack. It wasnt
till I took a leave of absence from my job after I got the contract
to write the book that I was able to devote as much time as I would
have liked to all along. Study an hour or two a day, go to all these
tournaments, and really sort of devote my life to it.
Does one have to have a meticulous mind like Buttss in order
to be a good Scrabble player?
Absolutelythe game is all about math. There are 100 tiles,
98 letters and two blanks. Its all about combinations, and they
are two basic mathematical virtues of this game. One is the probabilities
that are involved in calculating what is going on during the game.
The competitive players keep track of how many letters have been
played during the game.
second aspect is the geometry of the board. Board games are about
strategies; strategies are about patterns; patterns are about math.
Look at any gamechess, backgammon, checkers, Scrabblethese are
games about space and understanding geometry. Being able to sort
of instantly process and digest the geometry of board position is
a very mathematical practice.
So if you were a screenwriter and you were writing Rain Man,
you would have had Dustin Hoffman counting tiles instead of cards
in Las Vegas?
Absolutely! One of the top players is a former croupier. Another
top player is a professional poker player. As I say in the book,
its not without reason that Scrabble tournaments are held in places
like Reno, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City.
Is there life after Scrabble?
Absolutely. Im back at my job at The Wall Street Journal,
but that doesnt mean Im giving up Scrabble. Scrabble is life for
me right now. I just got back from a 27-game tournament in Reno.
Im still intent on having my rating stay at an expert level. My
rating fell below a certain level and it started to upset me, so
I played again and studied and got it up to where I wanted to be.
On the one hand, its sort of the validation that matters at being
good at this. But at the same time I just love it. I love anagramming;
I love the words; I love seeing them; I love playing the game. So
it wasnt sort of a journalistic mercenary mission. This was a genuine