Word Wars (USA; 80 min.)

directed by: Eric Chaikin; Julian Patrillo
Word Wars
Michael says: "Shades of SPELLBOUND! This doc focused on 4 contenders for the National Scrabble Championship. The film follows the four as the spend a year preparing for the tournament, both exploring their lives and their Scrabble successes and failures. Unlike the driven, but for the most part, normal kids in SPELLBOUND, the four guys in WORD WARS were pretty freaky. For the most part, all these guys want to do with their lives is play Scrabble! An interesting side-story involves Scrabble players in New York City's George Washington Park. Scot was so inspired by this film that we had to purchase the Deluxe edition of Scrabble immediately following the movie. 3 1/2 cats"
Bruce says: "WORD WARS is a terrific venture into the subculture of professional Scrabble players. Based on the book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, the film follows four prominent players as they head for the Nationals in San Diego. It’s the Kentucky Derby, Super Bowl and World Series all wrapped into one big word event. The four experts are Joe Edley, Matt Graham, Marlon Hill and G. I. Joel Sherman. They are not the only good players but Fatsis used them in his book because each one is an unbelievable character. My recommendation is to see this film and follow-up by reading the book which is a rich experience having seen the faces and heard the voices that match the names. The book also delves into the history and the politics of the game; WORD WARS merely touches upon the topics, choosing to focus on the competition.

"Anagramming – the process of forming words from random tiles – is the essence of the game according to Fatsis. WORD WARS unfolds in chapters each of which starts out with an anagram, e.g., tiles spelling 'Salvages' become 'Las Vegas:' 'One Veranda' becomes 'Reno Nevada.' We also watch Matt and Marlon constantly fine-tuning their minds turning 'Eric Clapton' into 'narcoleptic' and see anagrams swirling from the rack to the board during the actual playing of the game.

"Joe Edley works at the National Scrabble Association which many players view as conflict of interest. He is famous for his coffeehousing, making comments during play which tend to unnerve his opponents. Edley does tai chi and has spent years memorizing words for the game. He has words on index cards that he reads while he drives to and from work. For a long stretch he was a night watchman and spent hours learning words.

"Most players begin memorizing two, three and four letter words. The next level is the fives, sixes, and sevens. But that is not all; knowing things like stems is a crucial element. A stem is a word that combined with one additional letter will create a whole new set of words. Anagramming and memorizing will help a player use tiles but a top player must also be expert in assessing probabilities of drawing key letters and playing defensively when scoring. A high score we learn is not always the best play. (To fully understand what separates the experts from the pack, it is necessary to read the book.)

"Matt Graham lives in New York and is a part time stand-up comedian and writer. He is addicted to taking hundreds of what he hopes are performance-enhancing pills. He can’t seem to hold a job or keep a girlfriend for long. He works out, and compared to the other Scrabble players we see during the course of the film, Matt is beefcake. The pills make him nervous. Matt is afraid to fly and travels with stuffed animals to keep him calm.

"Marlon Hill is and African-American from East Baltimore who describes himself as happily poor. Marlon does do some volunteer teaching but he is basically an underachiever. He, too, is beset by nerves during the big tournament. During the San Diego tournament he solves the problem by finding a prostitute in Tijuana. 'I put a rubber on. I ain’t crazy,' he shrugs.

"G. I. Joel Sherman got his name form his ever-present gastro-intestinal disorder that causes him to belch frequently when stressed out during a match. He lives in the Bronx with his father and brother. A sign next to the doorbell reads, 'MISSIONARIES AND OTHER SALESPEOPLE PLEASE USE ENTRANCE IN NEW JERSEY.' G.I Joel runs the Scrabble Club in Manhattan. Like Matt and Marlon, G. I. Joel does not have a job. Scrabble is his life.

"WORD WARS does a marvelous job in giving us insight into what goes on behind the scenes and what drives the participants. Word Freak had been on my bedside table for over a year. Seeing this film prompted me to read the book and I was truly sorry when the book ended. This was a double pleasure.

"At one point G. I. Joel sits at the piano and plays the Beatles’ Across the Universe. As he sings he gives new meaning to the lyrics 'Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup, They slither while they pass, they slip away Across the Universe. Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind, Possessing and caressing me.' 4 cats (5 cats, combined with Word Freak)"

Amanda says: "Excellent, fascinating and a tad disturbing. Easier for me to comprehend than something about a chess tournament, which I cannot even play. However, I was shocked to discover that many/most players do not play for a love of words, but for a love of the game and competing. It is mostly math/computer/science folks that take up Scrabble at the competitive level.

"Disturbing in the level of disfunction that 3 of the 4 men that they highlighted chose to live in in their pursuit of Scrabble perfection. They seemed happy with their choices, and, they would have had life issues and some other obsessions no matter what. But it seems that Hasbro should be spending some money on health care workers for these top champions who readily admit to no job, no life, and no income--except for Scrabble (that could have also been why they were chosen for the movie.)

"The movie was fairly well paced. The first half was off to quite a good start, and the last 5 minutes left me rather touched. But the middle 40 or so dragged enough that I was paying bills online:-("