‘Word Freak’ author Stefan Fatsis spells it out
Penn alum and former ‘DP’ editor has fallen into the abyss of professional Scrabble
November 8, 2011, 11:24 pm · Updated November 10, 2011, 2:19 pm·
Ellen Frierson | DP
When Penn announced “Games: Body and Mind” as its academic theme for 2011-12, it should have named 1985 College graduate Stefan Fatsis as its ambassador.
As a sportswriter for the The Wall Street Journal, Fatsis covered multiple Olympic Games and World Cups. As a 43-year-old in 2006, he defied logic by spending training camp as a kicker with the Denver Broncos so he could write about the experience, despite having no previous placekicking experience at any level.
But the game that Fatsis has impacted the most in his career is competitive Scrabble.
“It is a kind of a narcotic,” Fatsis said. “It’s easy to fall into the game’s abyss.”
And in his bestselling book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, Fatsis chronicles his transformation from casual “living room player” into expert-rated Scrabble obsessive.
The former Daily Pennsylvanian editor visited the Penn Bookstore on Saturday to discuss the book’s 10th anniversary, for which a newly updated edition was printed this year.
For Fatsis, “falling into the abyss” meant obsessing over his rating and happily absorbing a subculture of players who were as eccentric as they were brilliant at Scrabble.
“Like with most obsessions, it started gradually and took over my life,” Fatsis said.
He became as preoccupied with Scrabble as expert and former world champion Joel Sherman, who features as one of Fatsis’s many offbeat mentors and friends in the book.
“He was a lot like the rest of us actually,” Sherman said. “That’s why the book turned out so well, he really understood how the rest of us felt about [Scrabble].”
Both Sherman and Fatsis played in Sunday’s North American Scrabble Players’ Association tournament in Houston Hall, one of several tournaments that the Penn Scrabble Club is holding in conjunction with the Year of Games. Penn Scrabble Club organizer and NASPA Director Connie Creed recognizes the huge impact Word Freak has had on the world of tournament Scrabble.
“We discovered a subculture through him,” Creed said. “He changed a lot of people’s lives with this book, and he inspired a lot of people to get better at the game.”
Leading to the first-ever television coverage of tournament Scrabble and inspiring several Scrabble documentaries, grateful gamers have fueled Word Freak’s massive success.
“The greatest satisfaction I get is when people come up to me and say I did something that helped change their lives,” Fatsis said. “That sounds silly when you’re saying you helped them become a better Scrabble player, but that’s how people’s lives change, introducing people to something that makes them happy, that in some cases gives them wives and girlfriends and boyfriends and a place to hang out.”
To that end, Fatsis’s impact on the game can be felt in the Penn Scrabble Club’s emergence on campus and Creed’s hopes for the club, which meets Thursday nights at Houston Hall.
“I want to see a more active scene with people playing Scrabble,” Creed said. “[Young people are] the future of our game. You see how other people play and think, look at other people’s racks.”
It is this kind of immersion into the human element in games that Fatsis seeks in all of his books.
“I like writing about sports where it has nothing to do with the wins and losses,” Fatsis said. “I like writing about the issues and the social, cultural impact of sports.”
Whether as a middle-aged Broncos kicker conveying firsthand the stresses of NFL training camp or a yuppie Scrabbler traveling around the country to play tourneys with penniless Scrabble geniuses, Fatsis goes out of his way to immerse himself in the culture of games. And he is gaming on.
“When I was writing Word Freak, it dawned on me that I was a 35-year-old man playing a game for a living,” he said. “I’m lucky.”