Scrabble has always struck me as one of the more incendiary of your basic roster of living room games. In my experience, conditions can get toasty. One’s normally liberal sense of humor can be tested, bent, and sometimes broken. The ice cubes and olives (in a properly lubricated game) can fly.
If Scrabble can bring out the beast in the most domesticated, pleasure-seeking players, what about those who play for fame and cold cash? They do exist, you know. If you don’t, my friends Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo want (with a little help from a smart film distributor or cable channel) to show you. I suspect the title of their documentary about the world of knock-out, drag-down Scrabble–Word Wars–will seem intuitively right to anyone who has played much so-called friendly Scrabble at all. The film reaches its first public audience this weekend. Out of 540 films submitted, Word Wars was one of 16 selected to compete in the documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off yesterday.
I saw an early trailer for Word Wars in 2002, and it looked to me like a happy marriage of the respective virtues of Spellbound and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control–two movies I adored. If you’ve read Stefan Fatsis’s excellent book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, you’ll understand why I bring up Errol Morris’s film. As characters, the perennial championship contenders in Scrabble fall in the general ballpark of those charming yet ever-so-slightly unnerving fellows in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, who display such feverish involvement in their curious lines of work, and somewhat less interest in other matters.
Word Freak falls into that Subculture-Exposed genre that produces so many middling, midlist, paint-by-numbers books (many of which, I hasten to add, are very good reads). But it rises to the top of its category by virtue of Fatsis’s good writing, and two pieces of luck. First, Fatsis turned out to have enough talent for the game to partly break out of his journalist role and compete very seriously. Second, the major players were, to a man, great characters: fascinating meetings of utter brilliance (in the game) and willful social marginality (outside of it). The more you read, the less this seems accidental. Dominating this game takes, aside from labor, a pretty beautiful mind.
Getting back to Word Wars, the documentary originated with Eric, a compulsive and talented anagrammer (throw him “sharecrop” and you get a fast “horsecrap” back) whose path reversed the one Fatsis had followed. Eric first entered this demimonde years ago as a competitor, wandered away from it for a time, and came back later with a camera. (Eric is a minor character in Fatsis’s book, where he reveals his favorite anagram, “eleven + two” = “twelve + one.” Believe it.)
“I was a wordplay lover in college,” Eric says, “but I realized that if you want to be a champion, you have to devote your life to memorizing words. That made me give up, but as I got to know the players I realized I wanted to capture the whole milieu on film. I was around when Stefan was researching Word Freak and I thought, someone should have a camera here.”
When Eric decided that the world’s best Scrabble players could and should be a cinematic subject, he called Julian, his college pal and a twelve-year veteran of the film industry. Julian’s r