Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

November 1, 2011

A Word Freak Grows Up

Ten years after the release of his book chronicling the competitive Scrabble scene, Stefan Fatsis remains nuts for tiles, triple word scores, and bingos.

Andrew Golding

Stefan Fatsis faced a dilemma, a crisis of sorts, as he mulled a pivotal decision: What tiles should he use to close out his opponent?

Stefan Fatsis
"There’s no room for sentiment in competitive Scrabble. Only efficiency."

Stefan Fatsis

It was July 2000, and Fatsis was huddled over a game board at the Marriott hotel in Albany, New York. The occasion was the annual twenty-game Fourth of July Scrabble tournament.

Fatsis was on a quest to qualify for the Nationals, the largest scrabble tourney in North America. Perhaps best known at the time as a sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Fatsis had taken a year off from the job to turn pro—as a Scrabble player. He had been on an intense mental and physical regimen to master the intricacies of the game by finding the ability to make the optimal decision in the quickest time possible.

In Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, recently released in a 10th anniversary edition, Fatsis details his journey from Scrabble scrub to a more-than-respectable player.

In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Fatsis tells Gelf about his decisions in that Scrabble game 11 years ago, his favorite Scrabble words, and his advice for the beginning Scrabble player.

Gelf Magazine: At the recent World Scrabble Championship, a player was patted down after a G tile could not be located during a game. Any thoughts on this latest controversy to hit the Scrabble world?

Stefan Fatsis: If it involves Scrabble, I have lots of thoughts, naturally. I wrote about the game's latest tempest-in-a-tile-bag at some length for Slate. What's especially interesting is that this episode was the third time in the last two years that Scrabble made headlines in the lamestream media. And each time flacks for the game in the UK, where Scrabble is owned by Mattel (it's owned by Hasbro in North America), either misled the public or tarted up the story in an effort to generate publicity from a gullible media. In a TMZ world, what editor wouldn't jump on a story featuring the words Scrabble, missing letter, cheating, and strip-search? Much easier than trying to understand the mystical anagrammatic brilliance of Nigel Richards, who won his second world championship on top of three North American titles.

Gelf Magazine: Has the Words with Friends application and others like it changed competitive Scrabble?

Stefan Fatsis: What it should have done is lit a fire under Hasbro, whose venerable game has been trampled in the marketplace by a strategically inferior copycat. Nothing against WWF, which I play occasionally. Its creators have brilliantly capitalized on the digital era's hunger for wholesome gaming. Hasbro previously botched its handling of an earlier, direct ripoff, Scrabulous, and now with WWF it's botched another opportunity to capitalize on and possibly monetize the hundreds of thousands of people—young, middle-aged, and beyond—who have become obsessed with word games. As a result, WWF—sleeker interface, simpler playability—looks hip and Scrabble looks square.
But you asked whether WWF had changed competitive Scrabble. Not in any obvious way. The leap from playing a friend on your iPhone for fun to learning hundreds if not thousands of words and playing a timed game under formal rules against a live human is huge. But the vast majority of new competitive Scrabble players now begin playing online. If your brain is wired to play this game that way, you'll find the club and tournament world. So WWF is certainly steering a few people who are mentally predisposed to Scrabble to the competitive scene.

Gelf Magazine: Do these Scrabble champs have anything in common, like a background in language, or are they voracious readers, or what?

Stefan Fatsis: You were expecting Renaissance poetry buffs? Guess again. Scrabble is a math game. Probability, combinations, board geometry, strategy. The top players are all math-brained. Nigel Richards works in security analysis. Lots of programmers, IT people, engineering and math majors. That's my excuse for becoming only good, not great.

Gelf Magazine: What is your most memorable Scrabble game and what were the pivotal decisions involved?

Stefan Fatsis: Can I just refer you to page 336? I lost that game, and my word knowledge was mediocre (though possibly better than now), but the tension was such that I thought my head was going to explode. That's the mark of a great game, and I've played dozens of those. Certain plays are certainly memorable; not long ago I broke my single-turn high score when I laid down PACIFIST through the F across two triple-word scores for 194 points. That was sweet. But clever also is nice, like at the National Scrabble Championship in August, where I turned CARRIAGE into MISCARRIAGE and, late in another game, front-hooked, as we say, AMAZED with UN to make UNAMAZED for 60 points and a win. But the play I'll certainly never forget was when my then-8-year-old daughter, Chloe, spotted ANCHORED through an O for a 212-point triple-triple. She's 9 now, and playing adults at the local Scrabble club, and studying word lists. Ask her for all the seven-letter words you can make from the letters A, E, I, N, R, S, and T.

Gelf Magazine: What word should be in the Scrabble dictionary that's not there now? And what are your favorite words to use?

Stefan Fatsis: I'm not a lexicographer, and I don't play one on TV. I think deciding when particular strings of letters reach enough of a critical mass in the culture to merit inclusion in a standard college dictionary is a practice best left to pros. That said, I look forward to the next update of Scrabble's North American word list, in 2013 or so. Expect at least one new two-letter word: GI (a sash worn in martial arts).
My favorite words? The ones that score the most points, of course. Or the ones that best balance my rack. Or the ones that my opponents don't know. There's no room for sentiment in competitive Scrabble. Only efficiency. The idea is to play the game to its maximum potential. There is such a thing, of course. I'll never attain it, because I'll never know all of the words, and you need to know all of the words to be able to maximize your potential. But I'll keep playing anyway.

Gelf Magazine: I stink at Scrabble—I'm not a wordsmith, not a good strategist, and my friends regularly crush me at the game. I want to get better. What should I do?

Stefan Fatsis: Learn the 101 two-letter words. Don't hang on to the Q because it's worth 10 points; it's an albatross. Keep a nice balance of vowels and consonants. Think prefixes and suffixes. Set aside the "good" letters and play off the "bad" ones if you can: the one-point letters—especially the aforementioned A, E, I, N, R, S, and T—are the most useful letters in English. Don't squander your blanks and Ss; you can bingo, you really can. But to play competitively, you need to study, study, study.

Gelf Magazine: Switching from Scrabble to your NFL book A Few Seconds of Panic: In the book, Ian Gold discusses the cruel nature of the NFL. In recent years, we've learned of players committing suicide due to football-related injuries as well as others with debilitating physical and mental issues. How do you balance your own football fandom with the knowledge of how dangerous the game is?

Stefan Fatsis: I find it harder and harder to separate the two, and it should be harder and harder for every sentient fan. Every time I see a player not snapping his chin strap or running a pass route with his mouth guard dangling or getting a congratulatory slap on the helmet after a good play, not to mention getting body-slammed to the ground or taking a helmet-to-helmet hit, I wonder about his future mental health. That is the bargain these guys make, of course—as one Broncos lineman told me, the only way to play is to try to not think about the future—but that doesn't mean the nature of the sport and our appreciation of it hasn't been changed irreversibly in the last few years.

Gelf Magazine: What did you learn as a member of the Broncos that would most surprise the average NFL fan?

Stefan Fatsis: No genital protection whatsoever!

Related in Gelf

Fatsis has spoken to Gelf before for three previous Varsity Letters appearances.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Books
- posted on Nov 01, 11
Steve Harper

Great article! Scrabble is a truly fascinating game.

Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.