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There is no moderation in the world of championship Scrabble

Stefan Fatsis is burning. His fretting cost him 50 points in overtime; he missed an obvious word (INULASE). After losing the $300 first-place prize, he punches the dashboard, knocking the face of his CD player onto the floor of his car.

For most of us, these aren't the emotions we feel after losing a game of Scrabble to Aunt Agnes. But for the stars in "Word Freak," words like "agony," "ecstasy" - and every hyperbole in between - describe their unquenched attraction to the game.

What is the mysterious allure of America's most popular proprietary parlor game?

Frankly, I didn't realize there was a mysterious allure before reading Fatsis's foray into the seamy underside of Scrabble subculture. From a drug-ridden New York park where the Scrabble groupies linger to the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, the people you find in these parlors are far more than hobbyists.

"Scratch the surface of any champion in any individual sport," says one Scrabble afficionado, "and you're often going to find an obsessed misfit who's deficient in many parts of his life because he devotes eight hours a day to it."

"Word Freak" chronicles an impressive bunch of misfits whose desperate passion is for wordmaking. There's Matt Graham, who attributes his success to copious use of "smart drugs" and vitamins. There's Marlon Hill, an unemployed ghetto boy from inner-city Baltimore. There's Joe Edley, who learned through a channeler that human beings can "manifest" their own reality. (With a combination of breathing techniques and mental exercise, he has "manifested" his expertise in becoming a three-time world champion.) There's "G.I." Joel Sherman, whose infamous digestive difficulties render him incapable of a real job. "[Scrabble is] the only thing I'm really good at," Joel says, "so this basically validates my existence."

Their single-minded devotion is both the charm and the torment of these quirky antiheroes. They spend hours every day, all year long, memorizing jillions of words: INTROMIT, ABO, ELUTRIATE, GLAIVES, KOUMISS. They ply their minds with anagrams: NATATORIUM = MATURATION.

They play Scrabble for fun because it is more compelling than, say, wages or women (the top players are mostly men). And finally, they bring it all to bear at weekend tournaments around the country, striving for that number that validates their existence: a ranking by the National Scrabble Association.

Through researching and writing this book, Fatsis - whose day job is sports writing for The Wall Street Journal - discovers his inner misfit on the way to becoming a nationally ranked player himself. Along with up-close portraits of national champs, the reader gets to experience the passions and defeats of a Scrabble junkie-in-the-making who earned a national ranking in about a year. With the point-count running, he captures the thrill of winning and the agony of defeat.

"Word Freak" also explores the history of Scrabble, banned words, the strange hold this game has over its devotees, and why so few women make it to the top. (As some people observe in the book, many women have a life.)

Scrabble is a truly American game. Conceived during the Depression by an unemployed architect, Scrabble filled a new kind of void in America, shooting from obscurity to national craze in 1953. A game combining luck-of-the-draw and sheer ingenuity, Scrabble spoke the right language to a postwar America with newfound leisure time and prosperity, a bent on education, and a taste for intellectual challenge. More than 50 years later, 2 million sets are sold a year with little advertising.

The ambition of this book may outweigh its audience. (It often outlasted my attention span.) Nevertheless, "Word Freak" is a fascinating look into a thriving, cultish world that's best admired from an armchair.

Julie Finnin Day is an editor for the Monitor's International news section.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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