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Stefan Fatsis C’85
Photo: John Rae

Over the summer, Gazette Senior Editor Samuel Hughes spoke with
Stefan Fatsis about his new book and his ongoing obsession with Scrabble.

Gazette: How’d you get interested in Scrabble?

Fatsis: Like most people, I played the game as a kid, and I played in high school a lot with a friend. We’d 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.
    But I knew that this world existed. I’d read magazine articles; I’d 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.”

Gazette: It became a slippery slope.

Fatsis: 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 writer’s 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 anagram—to come up with the beautiful words that they were spinning out on this Scrabble board.

Gazette: What is the basis of the appeal of Scrabble?

Fatsis: I think that it is deeply ingrained in all of us. We use words to write; we use words to communicate in a spoken way—we are assaulted by language. It is fundamental to our being. It’s 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.
    Scrabble was created during the Depression, but it didn’t become successful until after the war. The notion of leisure time and education came together and Scrabble was a logical fit—it was a way to show off that we’re smart. I mean, we’re competing here with the Russians to demonstrate our intelligence, and we had all this time on our hands.
    But once a game takes root in society it’s got to be about more than just some temporary social force; it’s got to be something very seminal to what we do and how we think. And Scrabble has managed to combine the language that’s so basic to how we live with the mathematics, which is so central to how certain people live.

Gazette: Was there a “eureka moment” for you when you decided to actually write the book?

Fatsis: 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. I’ll 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 I’m still sort of a rank hack.

Gazette: You went from being a “good living-room player” to an expert.

Fatsis: I did. Well, for the first year or two I was a hack. It wasn’t 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.

Gazette: Does one have to have a meticulous mind like Butts’s in order to be a good Scrabble player?

Fatsis: Absolutely—the game is all about math. There are 100 tiles, 98 letters and two blanks. It’s all about combinations, and they are mathematical.
    There 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.
    The second aspect is the geometry of the board. Board games are about strategies; strategies are about patterns; patterns are about math. Look at any game—chess, backgammon, checkers, Scrabble—these 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.

Gazette: 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?

Fatsis: 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.

Gazette: Is there life after Scrabble?

Fatsis: Absolutely. I’m back at my job at The Wall Street Journal, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up Scrabble. Scrabble is life for me right now. I just got back from a 27-game tournament in Reno. I’m 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, it’s 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 wasn’t sort of a journalistic mercenary mission. This was a genuine passion.

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