Fatsis spent time with avid scrabble players. Here are his observations. He relates through several dozen loosely linked narrations how the game has been transformed since the 1950s into a community that is strangely both exotic and familiar. This witty book celebrates scrabble as our national mental pasttime. Everyone who likes the game will find her or himself in these pages.
With a fresh writing style, he shares a huge amount of information about the way the game is seriously (if not addictively) played without the reader feeling burdened. (Did you know that in any random selection of 7 tiles, there is a 12% chance of a seven letter word appearing?)
Fatsis delves in an anthropological way into the life styles of noted participants in the competitive game. Some of these people are poster children for the saying that you either succeed in art or in life but not in both. The author knows how to approach even the most difficult personalities with wit and compassion.
He takes the reader to visit lonely geniuses in ill-kept apartments, clubs in New york City which spawned top competitors, competitions in Reno and elsewhere. He recounts the tussles between player associations and the manufacturers as unhappy, comical scenes from a lifelong dysfunctional marriage.
Fatsis is, I take it, a sports writer for the Wall Street Journal, and you should take that as an indication he knows how to bridge chasms. Lurking underneath the surface of his prose, I sense a belief in the power of play to discover value in our lives, and what more exquisite play is there but with words? Is it coincidental that during the decades of scrabble's dominance as a pasttime, one of our leading poets, James Merrill, used a Ouija board to help compose poems?
There is a genre of books and films which focus on wierd, outcast personalities. Fatsis does spend time in his book at the edge of society. But this is not another story about loners. Fatsis himself is a semi-competitive scrabble player. By projecting himself both as participant and observer, he brings us along to the extent that many readers will find something of themselves in an antic life of competitive play.
If you like scrabble, and if you are are curious about how creativity occurs in the world of play, and especially if there is a Walter Mitty crouching inside you, buy this book.