Saturday, August 3, 2013

Book Review - Word Freak

I've mentioned before that I'm kind of a nerd, particularly about words.  This is probably most evident in my minor obsession with Scrabble.  I blame my father, because he got me hooked when I was pretty young.  We always try to play a few games when we are together.  Somehow I had not heard about Word Freak until RA included it in her 30 recommendations.  I immediately put it on hold at the library.

The author starts to interview the competitive players in the US, and then gets the Scrabble bug and starts playing in the tournaments.  I enjoyed how the chapters jump back and forth between his personal experiences and focusing more on the history of Scrabble and back-stories of the main characters.  And these characters are ridiculous.  You may not be surprised, but competitive Scrabble players are nuts.  

A few of my favorite things:
  • The history of Scrabble is pretty interesting, and I didn't know anything about it.  The number of letters, points for each letter, board dimensions, and placement of the bonus squares were all big decisions, which I think is sort of fascinating. 
  • Women don't play competitive Scrabble as much.  The top players are all men.  I don't know what to make of this, but I thought it was interesting.  The author kind of guesses that most women may not have the obsessive-compulsive personality required for the competitive circuit.  It makes me want to become a competitive player just to prove that I could.  
  • Historically, when I was playing Scrabble, I would try to get the best word with the letters I had on my rack.  I also play somewhat defensively, to avoid setting my opponent up for a big play.  The competitive players talk a lot about rack management, or making sure you keep a good mix of letters so you can keep making good plays.  For example, if you have 6 vowels and 1 consonant, you might take a lower score to get rid of more vowels, to set yourself up for a higher score in the next play.  I'm paying more attention to that now.  I think it's helping!
  • Apparently, in the UK, they used to play a cooperative game.  Still with 2 players, and you each have your own boards, tiles, etc (I assume table talk is not allowed), but you are trying to work together to score 1000 points total.  I'm not sure how much fun this would be, because I'm pretty competitive, but I thought it was interesting.  (Confession - I've started playing "Pass and Play" games as both players on my phone, and my high score so far is 984.  So close!)  I want to find official rules for this, because I think there should be some guidelines for how many times you can trade in letters, and how does word verification work if no one challenges?  Google isn't much help.  
  • The "bad" word debate - I hadn't heard about it before, but several years ago, some groups lobbied for the Scrabble dictionary to remove all offensive words.  There were strong opinions on both sides.  Just because a word is offensive, does that make it unplayable?  Just because Scrabble is a family game, does that mean they can create a dictionary that omits certain words?  Who decides what words are offensive or not offensive?  Even with obviously offensive word, aren't they still words?  It seems like a sort of gray area for how the decisions were made of what to cut.  So the "Official Scrabble Players Dictionary" that you can buy at the bookstore, or access online doesn't have the offensive words in it.  The tournaments use a word list that includes the offensive words.  I thought that was interesting.  
After reading the book, I have pretty mixed feelings about the competitive Scrabble circuit.  I'm tempted to attend the Omaha Scrabble group sometime, but afraid that I would embarrass myself.  I definitely don't have the obsessive personality that is required to memorize every single word in the Scrabble dictionary.  My friend sent me a link about a few weeks ago about a tournament here in Omaha, and said I should have gone.  I don't know.  I think playing "for real" would take the fun out of it.

Any Scrabble players out there?  You should read this book!  

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