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Word Freak

A WHO’S WHO Some of the Characters in Word Freak

Matt Graham – A standup comedian in his early thirties who rarely works, Matt is a compulsive consumer of vitamins and "smart drugs,’’ which he asserts help his ability to memorize and anagram words. Matt began playing Scrabble in the early nineties, rising through the ranks until he reached the finals of the World Scrabble Championship. He lives in a narrow studio apartment in New York crammed with the stuff of his multiple obsessions: books stacked floor to ceiling, tables covered with bottles of pills, and piles of stuffed animals. Matt views Scrabble as his saving grace — but it also might be his downfall.

Joe Edley – The only two-time national champion, Joe is also the only high-level expert to make Scrabble a successfully remunerative career: he is associate director of the National Scrabble Association. He is also the Zen master of the Scrabble world. He practices tai chi in the playing room before a tournament, meditates, and focuses deeply on modulated breathing. Joe is a child of the human-potential movement: he studied Eastern mystics, trained in something called neurolinguistic programming, went on dangerous fasts to cleanse his body, and based his belief system on the writings of the New Age philosopher Jane Roberts. Joe once slept in a San Francisco park for five months to conquer his fear of the outdoors. Other players call him arrogant, aloof, and worse. But he doesn’t care.

Joel Sherman – G.I. Joel (as in gastrointestinal) is a walking Merck Manual of physical maladies. Asthma. Lactose intolerance. Postnasal drip. Graves’ disease. G.I. Joel belches during games; he just can’t help it. But he’s used the part of his Superfund site of a body — his brain — to become one of the game’s best and most devoted players, living the Scrabble life. Joel resides with his brother and his octogenarian father in the small Bronx house in which he was raised. He hasn’t worked in years because of his ailments, and thanks to a small inheritance. Joel passes the days playing Scrabble on the computer and watching TV. If it hadn’t been for his body, Joel says he would have been a singer; in hotel lobbies, he’ll sit down at a piano and bang away. "You may be right,'’ he’ll croon, "I may be crazy.'’

Marlon Hill – The combination Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson, and Chris Rock of Scrabble, Marlon was raised in inner-city Baltimore by a single mother — and still, in his early thirties, lives at home with her. He dropped out of college. He talks in ghetto slang, not because he doesn’t know proper English but because he believes it’s one more manifestation of white dominance. He quits jobs because of perceived racism and sues companies for the same. He’s angry at the world — at what he calls AmeriKKKa. Yet Marlon is one of the most personable and caring players in Scrabble. And one of the most proficient in his knowledge of the dictionary. He studies nine- and ten-letter words unlikely ever to be used in a game. And he solves anagrams in seconds, eliciting high fives from a roomful of players when he instantly transforms MEGACHIROPTERAN into CINEMATOGRAPHER.

Lester Schonbrun – Scrabble’s John Reed. A self-described communist, Lester began playing Scrabble in the 1960s in dingy round-the-clock games parlors that were institutions for New York men of a certain age and temperament. Lester works as a legal assistant for a liberal Oakland firm, roots for the Chinese women’s soccer team when it plays the U.S., and marches against Western involvement in Bosnia. He sometimes believes he should be smashing capitalism rather than playing Scrabble. But playing Scrabble is what he loves most and does best.

The Author – A reporter covering the sports business for The Wall Street Journal who gets sucked into the abyss of a board game. Stefan played Scrabble casually as a youth and in adulthood. But he never memorized words or entered a tournament. When he stumbles onto the subculture of obsessives, he quickly finds himself sinking deeper and deeper. His nights are spent at home alone playing solitaire Scrabble. He studies lists of words on the subway. He plans his life around the game. He finally leaves his job to try to fulfill an epic quest: to see if he has what it takes to become an expert Scrabble player.

Questions and answers with Stefan Fatsis

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