To the Letter
Fatsis became so hooked during his research that he worked his way up to expert level and is now ranked the 191st-best player in North America. Even after returning to his job reporting on sports for The Wall Street Journal, he manages to play up to 10 hours per week. When not competing, he can be found in his one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, which features a decorative coffee-table centerpiece filled with Scrabble tiles. Fatsis sat down with correspondent Natasha Stoynoff to discuss why 2 million people a year buy the game that has become an American icon—and to offer some insider tips.
Are we in the midst of a Scrabble boom?
If there is a Scrabble craze, it's a closet one. Every time I told somebody I was doing a book about Scrabble, I would get a story: "I play every week with my husband. We don't tell anybody." Americans don't like to admit to something that's perceived as geeky—particularly in an age when everything is fast-moving and kids want video games and instant stimuli.
What sort of person makes the best player?
If you were to create a Scrabble expert in the lab, it would probably be a 40-year-old male with a mathematical mind. Writers are lousy Scrabble players because finding the right word in writing is different from anagramming one. The two skills are not connected. Your casual Scrabble player could be anyone. More women play, but at the highest level, men tend to be better. I think that's because men are more prone to obsession.
Do you need a big vocabulary to play?
You can't play and not love words. They are the tools. Some people memorize the words. Certain top players from Thailand don't speak English, yet they download lists of words and spew them out. You need to study thousands of words and be able to retain them. And you need the math chip so you can analyze the geometry of the board.
How do players prepare for a tournament?
I've seen players, me among them, work out the morning of a tournament to get the blood pumping to the brain. Joe Edley, described in the book, does tai chi and meditates during tournaments. Matt Graham, also in the book, rubs Vicks VapoRub under his nose because he says inhaling it improves recall. I wolf down PowerBars and bananas during tournaments because playing is physically and emotionally draining. It's like an assembly line of letters that keeps coming. And you have to find a way to shut everything else out—focus on the seven letters in front of you.
Does Scrabble ever get violent?
During one tournament I saw someone hurl the board and yell at the opponent—who happened to be her boyfriend. I've banged tables and slammed doors and thrown things against the wall. It's a game where your self-worth is so nakedly on the table that when you fail, you let yourself down in this enormous way. But until you're able to accept your shortcomings, you can't get better.
Is there a specialized lingo?
A "living-room player" is a condescending term that competitive players use for people who play at home. They are the lowest of the low. "Coffeehousing" is the practice of distracting your opponent during the game—making chitchat. A "bingo" is when you use all seven letters of your rack, which is the holy grail of Scrabble. "Eating the Q" is when you can't play the Q at the end of the game.
What advice would you give a new player?
Learn the 96 two-letter words. Don't play the blank unless you can play a seven-or eight-letter word. Don't play an S unless you can score 25 points minimum. Learn the Q words without the U: qat, qaid, qoph, faqir, qanat, tranq, qindar, qintar, sheqel, qwerty. And if you can't use the Q in one or two turns, turn it in.
What was your highest-scoring word?
"Passover." It was a triple-triple—covering both triple word scores at the same time, for 167 points. The highest score ever is 311 on one play. And it was a simple word. She played "craziest." My favorite word was "oquassa," which is a kind of trout. I had studied all the seven-letter words with a Q in them.
Can you get rich playing Scrabble?
No one really makes a living. The biggest prize in any event is $25,000.
What is being "at one with the board"?
It's this place where you're completely in control of everything around you and you fear nothing. You are safe and you are powerful. It's all about breathing and concentration and Zen and the art of Scrabble. It's finding this sense of security and confidence that I've never experienced before in other pursuits.