Word gamers achieve syzygy

SCRABBLE, the board game found in everyone’s living room, took on an obsessive dimension at a Nov. 14 reading at the Penn Bookstore.

Stefan Fatsis (C’85), author of “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players,” spoke before about 30 people, some of whom were competitive SCRABBLE players of the sort described in his book.

Fatsis, a sports writer for The Wall Street Journal, explained that his investigation of the world of competitive SCRABBLE players started as a “sociological exploration.” “I knew that this world existed—that there were people who spent hours and hours studying lists of words and playing this board game—and I initially just wanted to see what they were like.”

Yet, after only a few visits to SCRABBLE events, Fatsis felt drawn to the game and the SCRABBLE-playing community at a much more personal level. “Very quickly I discovered that I shared more with them than I did with the notion of just being a reporter.”

What started as mere reporting turned into an obsessive drive to become a SCRABBLE expert. “I ended up playing SCRABBLE for about two years before I put a word into my computer…On the one hand it was the best way journalistically to understand the world. But it also allowed me to become completely obsessed with the game, and go to tournaments once or twice a month, and study an hour a day, and really understand, at a very fundamental level, the sophisticated nuances of the game.”

Fatsis said that his book “encapsulates what it is to be driven and obsessed about something. There’s something inside all of us that wants to achieve a level of mastery of certain things, and there’s a universality in those drives. They’re locked inside all of us, and the main part of this journey was to see if I could unlock it.”

Ultimately, Fatsis did achieve his goal of becoming an expert; he attained a rating of 1735, passing the 1600 cut-off for expertise.

For more information about readings at the Penn Bookstore, visit upenn.bkstore.com

Originally published on December 5, 2002