The Brainy Bunch

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit, produced and directed by Eric Chaikin ’89, codirected by Julian Petrillo ’91; animated graphics by Cassidy Curtis ’92. (Airs nationally September 23 on Discovery Times.)

Pulchritude is not a word that comes to mind when watching the tournament Scrabble competitors in Word Wars—regardless of its potential point count. Codirectors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo follow four top players as they prepare for the 2002 National Scrabble Championship in San Diego, and the film’s appeal is largely a triumph of intellect and heart over aesthetics. Swilling Maalox like Budweiser, Joel Sherman calls himself “G.I. Joel,” in reference to his gastrointestinal problems (“that’s the acid reflux,” he explains after belching, then wipes the spit-up from the corner of his mouth). Just as unselfconsciously, stand-up comic Matt Graham stuffs a sandwich into his mouth and talks away, demonstrating that good manners are not a prerequisite to setting a world record; in 2003 he won a game in just ninety-six seconds, scoring 471 points. Meanwhile Marlon Hill, who describes himself as a pre-Mecca Malcolm X and could use some serious anger management, decimates the conventional wisdom that people swear because their vocabularies are limited. All three men are single (no surprise) and marginally employed (no surprise there, either). There are few women in the top Scrabble ranks; and those in the film chalk up their scarceness to a gender-based lack of obsessiveness; they’re certainly better groomed and mannered than most of their male colleagues.

Three-time national Scrabble champion Joe Edley might seem at first to be the exception that proves the rule: not only is he married and a father, but he holds down a steady job. Still, when his stress level rises, Edley strikes a tai chi stance or sits down to meditate in the unlikeliest of places—the hotel ballroom, for instance.

They are, in short, an eccentric bunch, and judging from the other players who populate this strangely delightful and captivating film, they seem a fair enough sample. What it takes to play Scrabble at this level is a complete obsession with the game—that and a formidable brain. Tournament players cram and play three to five hours a day, pretty much obviating the possibility of most full-time employment. “I’m happily poor,” says Hill. With work and family cutting into his study time, Edley is seriously limited. He memorizes homemade flash-card lists of words on his hour-long commute to work … while driving.

The passions that draw most casual players to Scrabble—a love of language, for instance—are irrelevant at this level. More useful might be a genius for accounting or statistics. Learning definitions and usage wastes both time and brain power. Tiles snake every which way on the boards these players build, forming daddy longlegs out of bingos—words that use all seven of a rack’s letter tiles, thereby reaping an extra fifty points.

One morning Hill sleeps through the beeping of his hotel alarm clock, dragging himself downstairs to a tournament with eight of his allotted twenty-five minutes already elapsed. Still, he whips his competitor, 450–310. In the nationals, though, he’s not as lucky: needing a win to stay in contention for the $25,000 purse, he trades in four vowels only to replace them with an even worse draw.

Chaikin, who also produced Word Wars, played tournament Scrabble as a Brown student, but quit memorizing lists of words “to have a regular life,” he says. Then seven years ago, after leaving a software job on Wall Street, he got hooked again. Watching players in New York City’s Washington Square Park one day, he asked if anyone wanted to play for cash. Matt Graham, an aggressive hustler who’d just ranked second nationally, took him up on it. Chaikin lost his money but began a friendship that led ultimately to the documentary. For directing help, he turned to his old fraternity brother Julian Petrillo. Word Wars was nominated for the grand jury prize at last winter’s Sundance Festival, and it won the audience award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Screening in about twenty U.S. cities, the film has “just about broken even,” says Chaikin, which puts it on a financial par with the players it follows. This summer Chaikin was back studying lists of words, preparing “to be trounced,” as he put it, in the National Scrabble Championship, which was held in New Orleans in early August. By the final round he was ranked 159th.

Word Wars has a driving beat and a hip, electronic edge, so its winsome moments come as a surprise. To save money, Hill and Graham share a room in a San Diego fleabag hotel, but they fall out after Graham plays a made-up word on his roommate in the tournament. Hill rants that Graham is no friend of his, and without commentary the filmmakers dub his tirade over a film clip of Hill gingerly using a razor to clean up the back of his not-friend’s haircut. Action speaks louder than words.

Even G.I. Joel, with all his esophageal woes, grows on you over time. “I’ve never succeeded in any other endeavor,” he confides to the camera with an endearing matter-of-factness, pointing out that his body won’t permit him to sit still long enough to accomplish anything else. “I have done very little to contribute to society,” he acknowledges flatly.

On first thought, it’s a fair assessment. But by the time these players get to the nationals in San Diego, you may find yourself rooting for him, hoping he’ll take home the $25,000 prize. Or at least enough to cover his travel expenses and hotel tab.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.

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