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Friday, May 16, 2003

Tale of a word freak

By WONG SIANG HUME

STEFAN Fatsis has a way with the English language and its lexicon. There is no doubt about that when you read his book Word Freak Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. But it is not merely words that make him tick: it is willy-nilly the bizarre Scrabble sub-culture which he delineates and which inevitably subsumes him.  

First and foremost, Fatsis is an incredible storyteller. The young man with the looks of a matinee idol is a writer of the first order, a multi-talented New Yorker whose forte is the charm of his prose and how it captures the gamut of emotions inherent in his liaison with the contagious game.  

He is, after all, a Wall Street Journal reporter, a regular guest on US National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and the author of Wild and Outside: How a Renegade Minor League Revived the Spirit of Baseball in America’s Heartland, collectively, as it were, the annus mirabilis of a potential legendary writer. 

Fatsis wastes no time in trucking you down to the Northwest corner of Washing Square Park. There you are with him among characters who could easily be mistaken for players in a picaresque novel. The imagery is clear: Scrabble is going to be tough for our hero! 

But Fatsis tells you he is neither hot nor bothered by anything that goes around him in his chosen park, not even the cops in the Aegean blue NYPD cruiser could divert his attention. “None of it matters”, he says. 

It is here on a picnic table that he plays against Diane Firstman, a six-footer who enjoys coffeehousing (friendly banter) between her moves. This is his first open-air Scrabble experience, and he is not completely armed with two or three-letter words, the basics a Scrabbler must have at his or her beck and call.  

But things will change. On his subway rides to and from his haunt, the future champion commits to memory a formidable list of twos and threes. He improves and becomes obsessed. He reads the words, writes them down, sings them loud, and uses the Franklin, an electronic device which he got from the Scrabble underground. He soon discovers the beauty of words like FLOKATI, PANTOFLE, OUGUIYA, SNAFUED, SIEROZEM, OQUASSA, AVGOLEMONO, LONGEVAL, and a formidable number of bingos which nobody would spew out in their daily conversation, but which our author would treat as gold.  

Fatsis begins to take part in bingo spotting at any available time with 24-hour a day players. STEFAN + blank and FATSIS + blank become an obsession. They anagram, he gleefully announces, to FASTENS, FASCIST, FAINEST, FANJETS, FATNESS, FATTENS, SATISFY, FIESTAS, FISSATE. The exercise proves fruitful. A week later, playing solitaire he draws AEFNST? (? is a blank), and he puts down REFASTEN with, the reader will expect, a sigh and a smile and a sense of bravado. 

Most compelling of all in the formation of words is his recall of plays authored by Jim Geary, Nigel Richards, and Ron Tiekert. Geary, a top player from Australia, was holding a rack of BEEIROW. He played off B and E, willed out an A and a T from the bag and with AEIORTW now on his rack, he was able to play WATERZOOI through disconnected letters Z and O already on the board.  

Then there is the move of the legendary Nigel Richards at the l997 Worlds (World Scrabble Championship). The Kiwi “who has read the entire 1,953-page Chambers Dictionary and says he is able to recall words simply by conjuring mental snapshots of its pages”, played CHLORODYNE through three disparate letters, SAPROZOIC through ZO and the quaint-looking GOOSEFISH. Magic. 

The most sublime move of all, so Fatsis remembers, was a word laid down by American Ron Tiekert at a tournament organised by Joel Sherman in upper Manhattan. It was a move that was to eclipse his own brilliant performance against one Danny Goldman in Providence, United States. Ron played through three disconnected letters (A, B, and G) to form AUBERGINES, a move that sent everyone present into paroxysms of theophanic excitement. 

Word Freak reads like an allegory with Fatsis acting as the modern Piers Plowman, an Everyman who is in constant search for perfection in Scrabble. His world is a competitive one filled with champions, geniuses, and colourful personalities who make their appropriate entrances and exits.  

Fatsis has travelled half the word in the name of Scrabble, has had roaming rights to major tournaments and so he gets to meet Scrabble luminaries like Matt Graham, Adam Logan, 1999 World Scrabble Champion Joel Wapnick, America’s champion Bob Felt, Joe Edley – associate director of US National Scrabble Association who practices tai chi – Nigel Richards, prodigy Brian Capelletto, 1993 World champion Mark Nyman and 1997 world champion Joel Sherman whom he playfully nicknames G.I. Joel (because of his gastrointestinal problem). 

By his own admission, after playing an unforgivable slew of phonies and challenging valid words once too often, he is embarrassed with his first big tournament called the Eastern Championships. One game – where he gets an ignominious bludgeoning and ends with a measly 179 points – throws him into a slough of despond. But he hastens to Marlon and Joel and Matt because “I want to succeed in a way I’ve never wanted to before”. 

Succeed Fatsis does, from heartbreak to obsession to victory to near perfection. He says: “I was aware of the game’s wider cultural significance. Scrabble is one of those one-size-fits-all totems that pops up in movies, books and the news.”  

Fatsis then won the tourney called Bird-In-Hand, finished second at Atlanta and suddenly became good enough to win Albany at the Marriott in suburban Colonie in a top division of 32 players in Providence. “My rating didn’t matter. All that mattered was exploiting the new synaptic connections in my brain, understanding the puzzle and solving it. I finally got it. I played the total game,” screams Fatsis from the bottom of his heart and in triumph. He has arrived and is now in the expert class of 1679 in the ratings. Good for you Stefan! 

There is plenty to read and re-read in Word Freak. Fatsis doesn’t disappoint the reader who loves hothouse phraseology and beautiful turns of expressions. You will get yourself transported into a rich panorama of emotions in each of the 22 chapters of the Scrabble odyssey.  

Word Freak is unputdownable, for sure, and whether you are a competitive Scrabbler or just a living room player, you will identify yourself with the protagonist and the heartbreak, obsession, triumph and genius that come from dabbling in the irresistible sport. Word Freak is published by Houghton Miffin and available at MPH bookstore, Mid Valley Megamall. 

Word power 

Here are some great speeches from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra containing words (in italics and accompanied by a brief description), which the incomparable bard penned more than 300 years ago: 

Enorbabus (Act I, Scene II): I do think there is mettle in death which commits some loving act upon her, she has such a celerity in dying (CELERITY: rapidity in motion). 

Cleopatra (Act I, Scene V): Ha, Ha! / Give me to drink mandragora! (MANDRAGORA: The mandrake, a poisonous plant of the potato family, subject of many strange fancies, especially as a type of narcotic). 

Pompey (Act II, Scene I): My powers are crescent, and / My auguring hope / Says it will come to the full (AUGURING: foretelling). 

Pompey (Act II, Scene II): Keep his brain fuming; Epicurean cooks / Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite; / That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour ... (CLOYLESS: that cannot cloy or prick; PROROGUE: to postpone). 

Octavius Caesar (Act II, Scene II): ? and with you chiefly i’ the world; more laughed at that I should / Once named you derogately (DEROGATELY: in a derogatory manner). 

Antony (Act III, Scene XIII): My playfellow your hand; this kingly seal and plighter of hearts (PLIGHTER: one who pledges or promises). 

Cleopatra (Act I, Scene IV): The demi-atlas of the earth, the arm / And burgonet of men (BURGONET: a variant of burganet, a light 16th-century helmet with cheek-pieces). 

Antony (Act IV, Scene XII): All come to this! The hearts / That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave / Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets / On blossoming Caeser ... (DISCANDY: to dissolve or melt from a state of being candied; also discandie). 

Cleopatra (Act V, Scene II): Say good Caesar, / That I some lady trifles have reserv’d, / Immoment toys, things of such dignity. (IMMOMENT: of no value). 

Lepidus (Act II, Scene VII): Nay, certainly, I have heard / The Ptolemies’ pyramises are very goodly things ? (PYRAMISES: plural of pyramis, a pyramid). 

All words highlighted above can be found in the Chambers English Dictionary. They can be used in the game as bingos (in Scrabble a bingo is play of a valid word of seven letters or more made in one move and scoring a bonus of 50 points). 

Errata: In the last article, The orchestra played in a web of complicated polyphony and the chorus sang in as many as 12 parts: Time (POLYPONY: composition of music in parts each with an independent melody of its own; from Greek POLY- many, much) should have read: The orchestra played in a web of complicated polyphony and the chorus sang in as many as 12 parts: Time (POLYPHONY: composition of music in parts each with an independent melody of its own; from Greek POLY- many, much) and Pauletter Yeo should have read Paulette Yeo. We regret the errors.


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