Word Up

Obsessive Compulsion
Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 16 2004 3:06 PM

Word Up

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Opening night 
Opening night

A little over a week ago, I participated in a major sporting event, an unrivalled intellectual competition, or the world's biggest dork-fest (depending on who you believe).

This was the National Scrabble Championship—part contest, part carnival, part family reunion. With more than 850 registered competitors, our family is huge—and hugely dysfunctional. We're like one of those unhappy Russian families, with internecine (online) squabbles over everything from the costs and benefits of receiving free yogurt at tournament breakfasts to the ad hominem attacks leveled by a brilliant but immature player against his fellow competitors.

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We spend hours a day studying word lists (when not busy bickering over yogurt). We range from age 12 to age 93, hail from 40 states and five countries, and—it may surprise you to learn—don't all speak English. Among the competitors this year were a dozen or so young Thai men, including last year's world champion. Our last three national champions are an options trader from Chicago, a devotee of tai chi from Long Island, and an unemployed middle-aged man from the Bronx who calls himself "a professional Scrabble player." We play in living rooms, online, in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park—and, from Aug. 1-5, in the grand ballroom of the Marriott Hotel, New Orleans, La.

Entering the drab hotel lobby the evening before the competition, I saw dozens of men and women hunched over game boards, feverishly studying word lists and flashcards, catching up with old friends—all speaking the lingua franca of Scrabble.

"I've been studying my five-vowel eights."

"Is that good in SOWPODS?"

"He bingoed out to win."

"I hate games that come down to Q-sticks."

An intense late-night game of Anagrams
An intense late-night game of Anagrams

Some of us were determined to take the week in stride, viewing it as an excuse for a vacation. Others embraced the competition, sporting souvenir hats, Scrabble-tile neckties, and not-so-witty T-shirts—listing the dozen or so words that contain Q but no U, for instance, and captioned "Who needs U, anyway?" I wore jeans and my Mets hat, but I'm no less obsessed. As soon as I arrived, I scanned the lobby for a game—and found one, a doubles match, with three friends I play with regularly in the park in New York.

Ever since I read Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak two years ago, I have been a reluctant addict. I joined a Scrabble club within driving range of my college, learned the fundamentals there, and then, when I moved back to New York City after graduation, entered the big league at Manhattan's Club 56. Years of Scrabble with competitive grandmothers, aunts, mothers, and sisters (no men, for some reason) helped me jump from novice to near-expert with relative ease and speed. But without dedicated studying, one can improve only to a certain point. There is a wall in Scrabble, and last year I hit it. Hard.

So, in the weeks leading up to the competition, I crammed. Nightly, you could find me awake at 2 a.m. typing strings of letters into a Unix-based program that would quiz me on their anagrams. I took these quizzes until the wee hours of the morning, while my girlfriend slept soundly next to me.

I wish I weren't so obsessed; it takes a good bit of prodding to get me to admit to my habit at all. So, I hemmed and hawed, thought about not attending the championships, even waited until hours before the deadline to register. But there was never any doubt in my mind: I needed to play in New Orleans.

Like most good addicts, I have tried to give up my drug, but I can't. My mind is a jumble of words and letters, with anagrams as likely to pop into my head at the most inopportune moments. Case in point: Once, in bed with a girlfriend, I asked her out of the blue, "What's a poultice? Is it like a compress or something?"

"Yes," she laughed.

And then, understandably, asked: "Why in God's name are you thinking about poultices right now?"

"Change the I in POULTICE to an A," I said, "and you've got COPULATE."

It was then that I knew my addiction had gone too far. 
 
Over four days, I played 30 matches against the best players in the world. Seeded 167th of the 173 players in Divison 1, I knew I wasn't a real contender—but that first night, I was still too excited to sleep.

Dan Wachtell is an inveterate player of Scrabble and many other games and sports. He recently competed at the 2004 National Scrabble Championship. He lives in New York.