Word Freak


by Stefan Fatsis (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001)


(This column was first published in the October 4, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


Stefan Fatsis's book Word Freak is about Scrabble. His subtitle makes that clear: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players. But do not turn to this book for help with after dinner games unless you are a logophile of the first order. For the title is well chosen; this is indeed a book about people most of us would consider freaks, people who devote their lives to playing this board game according to arcane rules about what words are allowed, never mind the meaning of those words.


Fatsis lists a few of those words that he observed on boards when he first set out to learn the game the pros play: "LEZ, GOBO, VOGIE, TAOS, FOVEAL, GUID, MOKE, JEREED, LEVANTER, ZAYIN, GLAIVES, SHELTIE, DOVENED, CAVIE." I think that I can safely assume that you don't play words like those. My wife challenged me when I played the word BLOUNDER and got me. It wasn't in our dictionary despite my claim that it represents a person who combines rotten character with constant stumbling. I wonder now if that word is in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.


But you will learn more about the game and about these strange people -- including the author -- who make it their major focus. Here, for example, is Fatsis about Alfred Mosher Butts, who invented the game -- first calling it LEXICO -- in 1932: "Chess is a game of pure skill, Butts wrote. Backgammon combines luck and skill, providing 'a much more satisfactory and enduring amusement?' Contract bridge was sweeping the nation, but was too intricate for the masses. Butts noted that those three games are of his first two schools: moving pieces on a board and numbers. 'It is curious;' he wrote, 'that while two of the three bases of table games have yielded such interesting developments, the third has produced nothing better than Anagrams?' Not that there was anything wrong with Anagrams. Butts and his brothers played the boxed game growing up. But it was not as popular as chess or bridge. It needed tweaking.


"In the study in Stanfordville, Bob Butts pulls down Alfred's 1904 edition of The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Marked with a deposit ticket from the Stissing National Bank in Pine Plains, New York, is the first page of the short story 'The Gold Bug,' in which the character Legrand solves a cipher about a hidden treasure by comparing its symbols to letters in the alphabet. 'Now, in English,' Poe wrote, 'the letter which most frequently occurs is e. Afterwards, the succession runs thus: a o i d h n r s t u y c f g l m w b k p q x z?' (Poe wasn't even close.) 'E, however, predominates so remarkably that an individual sentence of any length is rarely seen, in which it is not the prevailing character.'


"Poe inspired in Butts a eureka moment.


"'It follows that word games should be played not with a jumble of letters;' he wrote, 'but with a mixture so proportioned that the individual letters will occur in the same frequency as they do in normal word formation?'


"That would solve one problem with Anagrams. It would be easier to make words if letters appeared proportionately to their use in the language. Another problem, he wrote, was that the game was too slow. Rather than draw one tile at a time, Butts suggested giving players a handful of letters that they would rearrange into words by drawing and discarding. The result would be a word game with 'a proper speed and snap; an excellent balance between the skill of the players and the luck of the draw.'


"He went on: 'It is neither childish nor complex, yet may be played and enjoyed both by children and the deepest of students.... The true worth of a game depends, of course, on its entertainment value, but, if in addition its players gain an increased vocabulary, a further knowledge of word structure and of spelling, it possesses something of which no card or board game can boast...LEXIKO (Greek lexikos, of words) is that game.'


"Alfred Butts was a linguistic layman. Other than Poe's fictional musings, he had no secondary source to tell him the frequency of letter usage in the English language. Butts hadn't been much interested in words before deciding to invent a word game. But he was suited to it: In everything he did, Butts was meticulous. On graph paper, in block capital letters, he recorded the precise time of departure and arrival and distance traveled, to the tenth of a mile, of automobile excursions. A postcard collection was indexed according to a personal classification system (amphitheaters, 3E4; balloons, 4E2; Catskills, 2E3; servants' quarters, 3F1; stockyards, 6C). Even as he disdained games playing as a serious avocation, Butts had the organized, mathematical mind of a games player.


"Butts pulled out his architect's supplies and got to work. His files are thick with spreadsheets containing twenty-six rows, one for each letter, and slash marks in groups of five denoting their appearance in one publication or another. The popular story is that Butts figured out the breakdown of the letters in Scrabble by counting letters from the front page of The New York Times. Actually, he used several sources, including the Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and The Saturday Evening Post.


"On October 5, 1933, Butts underlined in green and brown ink all of the words of nine letters or more on page 21 of the Herald Tribune, the obituary page; the notice of the death of Earl Cadogan, the British representative to the International Olympic Committee, included landowner, hereditary, succeeded, assisting, lieutenant, commandant, secondary, and viscountcy. There were 125 nine-letter words in all, and Butts wrote them down in long columns in block caps on the left side of a page, then tallied up the frequency of their letters in a column on the right: A-71, B-5, C-5O, D-55, E-157, F-13, G-36, H-18, I-107, J-2, K-4, L-33, M-27, N-105, 0-98, P-34, Q-2, R-92, S-76, T-97, U-36, V-12, W-10, X-5, Y-16, Z-1


"He increased the number of words and broke down letter frequency by percentage: He created a list of one thousand words of four letters or longer and recorded the percentage by word length. He compared letter frequency of varying word lengths on a page of the dictionary versus a page of The Saturday Evening Post, sampling a total of 12,082 letters and 2,412 words. He combined samples from different sources; one study of 18,165 letters included 6,083 letters from the Times.


"Page after page after page of tattered, fraying paper with the notations of a bean counter spill from the Archives. I imagine tiny Alfred, who looks so meek in photographs, balding and bespectacled, like an expressionless Don Knotts, hunched over some newspaper or magazine in the fifth-floor walkup in Queens, counting letters. It wouldn't have mattered to the success or marketability of his game whether there were ten or eleven or fifteen E's. But Butts's perfectionist mind insisted that he figure it out. That the game be right was paramount."


Fatsis also gives us a sense of the chances involved: "There are 3,199,724 unique combinations of seven tiles that can be plucked from a virgin Scrabble bag of ninety-eight letters and two blanks. That's the good news. The bad news is that you can draw only one of those combinations at a time. It could be AEINST? [in Scrabble notation ? represents one of the two blanks] with its sixty-seven possible bingos. But it also could be HUIJUWW or any other rack of dross.


"Mathematicians have determined that the possibility of choosing an acceptable seven-letter word from a fresh bag is 12.63 percent, or just over one in eight, and that's pretty good news, too. Except for one other thing: Those seven letters could be EEEGRUX or CMMOPSY and you don't know that EXERGUE and COMSYMP are acceptable words. Even worse, they could be AELLRSY and you see RALLYES but chicken out and learn later that it is a word and means exactly what you thought it meant (the plural of a kind of auto race). Or, even worse than that, the tiles could be AAFIWY? and you fail to see the one obvious bingo, FAIrWAY." (Here the lower case r represents using the blank tile for that letter.)


And the author soon becomes just another of the weirdos he is studying: "After Reno and San Francisco, before the Worlds, I've had enough. The fifty-one games, the round-the-clock Scrabble scene in the tawdry casino, the homeless former Scrabble player on the corner. I'm too committed to the game and losing perspective. On the one hand, I have agreed to write this book, which requires me to be a full-time Scrabble player (I've taken a leave of absence from my job [at The Wall Street Journal of all places]). On the other hand, if I allow the game to dominate my life, as I have, how am I any different from Matt or Marlon or G.I. Joel (other than the fact that I'm still a weak player)? They're like Bobby Fischer, who told an interviewer in 1972 that he understood that chess wasn't 'work' and that he was 'out of touch with real life.' Fischer said, 'I've thought of giving it up off and on, but I always considered: What else could I do?'


"I'm staring at EEGLNS?.


"Instantly, I think FEELINGS. Then the song 'Feelings' comes into my head and I can't get it out before it's stuck on one of those endless loops, distracting me during a close game. 'Nothing more than FEELINGS;' it screams, and I can't even play the word, or any other bingo, on the tightly packed board. I open things up with GLENS to a triple-word score, saving E?. ('...trying to forget my...'), and draw BFFOT, and the song is still there ('... FEELINGS of love...'). I make my (brilliant) play OFFBEaTS ...wo, wo, wo,...') draw a challenge, pull the X and the second blank, slap down PaX for 55 ('...again in my heart...'), and wind up winning 454-289.


"I do the math: From the time 'Feelings' began its torturous soundtrack, I outscored my opponent 237 to 63. I never realized how much I loved that song."


Not much help with the game but a most interesting read.