Ten Years of Scrabble Playing Later, Word Freak Author Stefan Fatsis is Still Freaking

If you find yourself in the Hotel InterContinental up north this week and hear a bizarre, intermittent rattle coming from the second-floor ballroom, worry not. It's not a rattlesnake handlers' convention. It's just the world's best Scrabble players shaking for Qs and Us.

That's right: There's a national championship of America's favorite word-based board game. It's taking place right now in Addison, and it happens to coincide with the release of the 10th anniversary edition of Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak, the best first-person narrative board-game book ever, assuming Joan Didion never finished that Chutes and Ladders memoir.

But Fatsis -- who will sell and sign the new paperback edition at 6:30 tonight at the hotel -- isn't just a chronicler of competitive word obsession. He's an obsessive himself. He started this year's tournament 7-1, with help from some pro-level plays.

I caught up with him via email to hear about what's happened, to him and to Scrabble, since his book was first published in 2001.

What's changed in the world of Scrabble since you first wrote Word Freak ten years ago?

A lot (buy the new edition!). But here are three things.

1. The web. Hasbro, Scrabble's corporate daddy, pretty much missed the boat online. Its benign neglect led first to the rise of the elegant copycat Scrabulous on Facebook, which Hasbro shut down and replaced with an inferior program, alienating hundreds of thousands of users. Then the company let upstarts like Dallas' own Words With Friends siphon away more casual word geeks -- potential customers -- from the classic.

2. The politics. As in any world where the stakes are small, the battles are large. Hasbro decided a few years to stop funding the organization that ran competitive Scrabble. (Dallas' own) Chris Cree, an expert player/forklift salesman, stepped up and formed a new group. Naturally, some players were disgruntled and formed a (small) rival. Yes, there's a Scrabble civil war.

3. The kids. Spawn of Word Freak, I call them -- dozens of brilliant, funny and well-adjusted teens and twentysomethings who have joined the game and enlivened the culture after reading my book. I'm very proud of that.

When you first pursued competitive Scrabble, you were considered a decent "living room player." Now you're competing at Nationals and holding your own. How's it looking this week?

Well, by the book's end I had an expert-level rating. But if you don't study the words, you suffer the consequences. Over the past decade I've seen my rating plummet. This week I'm playing in Division 2 (out of four). I got off to my best start ever at a National Scrabble Championship -- 7-1 and second place out of 90 in the group. As I type, I'm 9-5 and in 14th place. I've made some nice plays: AINSELLS (the plural of a word meaning oneself), GAOLERS (gaol is an alternate spelling of jail), NODALITY (the state of being nodal), VUGGIEST (abounding in vugs; a vug is a small cavity in a rock or lode), DOWNTIME on a triple-word score for 95. And I won a game by finding EOCENE (of or pertaining to a certain geologic time period). But those plays are history. It's a long tournament -- 17 games to go. Gotta stay focused, breathe deeply and take it one rack at a time.

Scrabble's not your only obsession. You talked your way onto the Denver Broncos as a training-camp placekicker in one of my favorite NFL books, A Few Seconds of Panic. What else have you been mildly (or not so mildly) obsessed with of late, and will any of it end up in a book?

I've been obsessed with the athletic lives of little girls. I've got a 9-year-old daughter, and I've been coaching her soccer team -- the Power! -- for a few years now. The way the girls respond to coaching, to playing and to each other has been fascinating to observe. So I'm planning to do a book about girls and sports -- why they need it, how we coach them, what we're doing wrong as a culture, the legacy of Title IX and other issues.

I took my daughter to the Women's World Cup in Germany (alas, only the early games, so we didn't see the epic Brazil and Japan matches) and it was remarkable to see her identify with the athletes and the sport. Girls need more of that.

What's the best Scrabble play you've ever made, and did you celebrate it soccer-style, by running through the ballroom with your shirt pulled over your head? Because that would be sweet.

Revealing a T-shirt underneath reading I AM THE KING OF THE TILES. Actually, I recently broke my own personal record, in a game at the Scrabble club in Washington, D.C., where I live. There was an F sitting five spaces below the triple-word score square in the upper left corner. My rack held the letters ACIIPST. In one of those joyful, life-affirming, yes-my-brain-still-works moments, I saw the play in about five seconds: PACIFIST. 194 points. Want to see a picture? Because, of course, I have one.

Ten years may have passed. I may not be the player I once was. But I still live for this.

Follow the Mixmaster on Twitter: @the_mixmaster.

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Joe Tone
Contact: Joe Tone