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Most Americans have played Scrabble. Many of them grudgingly retrieve it and other antediluvian board games from the closet when large storms or family gatherings thwart more zestful entertainment. Other people actually enjoy playing it -- in moderation.

Through the jaundiced eyes of the serious Scrabble competitor, the aforementioned are all nothing more than "living room players," unable to grasp the marvelous potential of those smooth wood tiles and brightly colored bonus squares. Living room players may get lucky occasionally -- like hitting two triple-word scores at once -- but in general, their strategy is slipshod, their word knowledge worse. In short, they've got no game.

"In a way, the living room player is lucky," Stefan Fatsis explains in Word Freak. "He has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slip by unnoticed. The idea of Scrabble greatness doesn't exist for him."

If this sounds like the musings of a man who holds Scrabble in frighteningly higher regard than does the rest of humanity, that's because in the course of researching the strange subculture of competitive Scrabble players, Fatsis got sucked in. He went native. Midway through Word Freak, his modest interest in the game transmogrified into unrepentant obsession.

The enthusiasm that Fatsis, a sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal, brings to Word Freak not only breathes remarkable excitement into a fogy of a game (the occasional mind-numbing explanation of strategy notwithstanding), it also tempers the urge to dismiss its hard-core devotees as mere weirdos.

Let it be said the urge is strong. Fatsis, to his bemusement, finds himself in a league with the likes of unemployed comedian and smart-pill popper Matt Graham; Joel Sherman, a self-proclaimed "professional Scrabble player" who famously suffers severe gastrointestinal problems; and a host of other oddities who still live with their parents or in cramped apartments laden with Scrabble-related books.

In the narrative of his Scrabble journey, which seems to take place primarily in drab motel banquet rooms, Fatsis treats the characters he meets with a compassion borne of camaraderie, showing readers that the competitive fire can burn as intensely on the game board as it can on the playing field.

"Away from the game, they may not be skydivers or day traders ..." he says with genuine affection for his fellow Scrabble disciples. "They may be mild-mannered geeks or underachieving layabouts, but behind a rack, for 50 minutes, they are stone-faced killers."


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