A man and a woman spend enough time together, this day is going
to come. The way Jim Geary figured it, they'd had enough meals,
seen enough movies, chitchatted enough already, so why wait any
longer? Isn't he the game's newest star? Didn't he bust into
the elite faster than just about anyone, ever? Doesn't he have
that necessary drive, the tools, those empty killer eyes? Yes,
he's as cocky as an unbroken colt; lose to Geary and you might
well hear him chuckle as he celebrates the power of "the
Jimster." Someday, he likes to announce, everyone will point and
say, "There goes the best who ever lived." Shouldn't she know too?
So here it is, the moment of truth. Just the two of them, at her
place. Jim Geary turns to his girl and blurts it out: I'm a
world-class Scrabble player.
There's a shadow, one flicker, of incomprehension--and then she
smiles and takes his hand. She understands! "I have a hobby,
too," she says. She pulls him into the bedroom, reaches down. "I
do this for fun," she says, and he can't believe what he sees;
it's a kind of horror. In her hands she holds a lacy, white,
formfitting ... doily.
One man stands at the blackjack table in the baccarat pit at
Bally's in Las Vegas. He has been here all night, but this being
the gut of a Vegas casino, there is, of course, no telling that
it is now Wednesday or morning or August or someplace in the
swelling bustle of the latest American boomtown. Out where the
slot machines pop and whistle, the suckers are just now filling
the place with a growing wave of touristy blather, but Chris
Cree hears nothing. He is exhausted. He is cursing with glee.
Three separate hands lay on the green before him, at $5,000 per.
Behind that stands a mountain of chips.
"Just 40 minutes ago, I had him down $15,000," mumbles Eric the
dealer. Two large men without necks, casino boys, loom behind
Eric. They don't look happy. "Then he went on a break ... and I
don't know what happened. Now he's up $150,000."
Cree keeps winning. He's on that lifetime roll, insulting Eric
the dealer, doing no wrong ... but now someone starts tugging,
gently, at his sleeve. A friend is telling him: The Scrabble
tournament is about to begin. You're late. You've got to come
upstairs now. Cree's eyes don't register. Eric the dealer looks
up from the cards. "Is that a sport?" he says.
Scrabble? Not hardly, not in the strictest sense: When you
consider that its most demanding physical task is the lifting of
a lightweight pouch to eyebrow level, that the verb best
describing the vital act of pulling small lettered tiles from
said pouch is rummaging--no, this crossword board game isn't a
sport. Then again, in a universe that recognizes synchronized
swimming, bodybuilding, rhythmic gymnastics, dog racing,
Ping-Pong, biathlon and Don King boxing bouts as legitimate
sporting enterprises, maybe we shouldn't be so choosy. Some 30
million people in the U.S. and Canada dabble in Scrabble; and
while for many the game lies fallow under Monopoly or Trivial
Pursuit until holidays force families to do something wholesome
together, the Scrabble player who toils at the game's highest
level is an entirely different animal--brilliant, obsessive,
And never more than now. Since its invention by architect Alfred
Butts in 1931, Scrabble has played poor cousin to chess and
bridge, held dear mostly by crossword freaks and nickel-a-point
hustlers in grimy game rooms like New York City's Flea House. No
one made a living at it; Scrabble's world-championship event,
now worth $11,000 to the winner, wasn't even held until 1991.
But since the Milton Bradley Company took over the game in
1989--and began pumping cash into tournaments--Scrabble's hard
core has solidified into 10,000 registered players across North
America, the better ones gathering in 110 regional tournaments,
the best gunning for the $15,000 first prize at the biennial
national championship. And you'll find none of the old-line
Scrabble corps complaining. "I love money," says 60-year-old
Lester Schonbrun, one of the original Flea House hustlers and an
unrepentant disciple of Karl Marx. "Most Communists do. You
can't escape the smoke that's all around you, even as a
Here in Vegas the air is thick with smoke and money and the
shock of the new: An unprecedented $50,000 first prize goes to
the winner of the first-ever four-day, 54-player, 24-match
$100,000 Scrabble Superstars Showdown. There has never been
anything like it. The Showdown, which begins as a round-robin
competition whose results determine the later-round matchups, is
simply the richest and most stellar tournament in history. With
even its $20,000 second prize dwarfing the top prize for a U.S.
or world championship, it has lured two world champions, seven
U.S. champs and four other legendary talents--Brian Cappelletto,
Charles Goldstein, Richie Lund and Peter Morris--out of
retirement. There is a reason. That kind of money can change
everything. That kind of money allows one to quit a job, change
a life, become the first-ever Scrabble professional....
"I cain't be-leeve it!" Cree's Texas screech cracks the calm of
the baccarat pit. He is standing at the cashier's window,
holding his check. "I won $177,500!"
Cree owns and runs a business selling forklifts wholesale in
Dallas. Now 41, he has been one of the nation's top Scrabble
players for years. But upstairs at the Showdown he hasn't played
well the last couple of days; he has no shot at the $50,000.
None of his blackjack luck travels. Pried loose from his cards,
he arrives late for the first Scrabble match of the day and
loses. At lunch he races to the baccarat pit and wins another
$62,000. Then he comes back to the Scrabble board and loses more.
At week's end Cree leaves with more than $250,000 in his pocket,
five times what the winning Scrabble player takes home. But when
asked the obvious question--would he rather win at Scrabble or
win a quarter of a million dollars gambling?--he doesn't
hesitate. "Tournament," he says. "Glory. Glory. Glory. I want
G.I. Joel suffers. You cannot miss this. He twitches, his eyes
bulge, he burps, he reaches for the bottle of Mylanta beneath
his chair. There is not a hint of cool about Joel Sherman, no
stoic hero act here. He will detail, blank-faced, his various
maladies--allergies, asthma, hyperthyroidism--but all that is mere
warmup for the real fiend: his enemy, his stomach. It is such a
constant topic that fellow players slapped him with the nickname
Gastro-Intestinal. G.I. Joel. Five years ago Sherman, now 33,
toiled as a bank teller, but stress turned his gut into a
boiling pool; he hasn't worked since. He plays the piano and
would love to sing on stage. It's impossible. "My sinuses tend
to drain when I sing," Sherman says. "So I'll sing one song, and
then I have to blow my nose."
But Joel Sherman does one thing in this world better than all
but about a dozen people. He can, like every one of the Scrabble
masters arrayed at 27 tables in the casino ballroom this
morning, glance at the name Las Vegas and instantly scramble its
letters into "salvages," transmute "drainage" into "gardenia"
and, in the interest of put-upon writers everywhere, take
"editors" and recast it as "steroid." He can tolerate spending
four hours a day memorizing word lists, thumbing through The
Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. He can land triple
triples--an extraordinary play, hitting two triple-word squares
and piling up enormous numbers of points in a single move--so
quickly it leaves his adversaries gasping; he can see extensions
(turning a word like "city" into "electricity") more creatively
than anyone alive. He can reach into the bag and pull out a
seven-tile combination like E, I, I, N, R, S and a blank (which
can be used as any letter), and instantly know he has hit the
jackpot: There are 11 different bingos (plays burning all seven
tiles and earning a 50-point bonus) that you can build out of
that combo. "Ironies" is only the most obvious.
A Scrabble tournament is the quietest sporting event this side
of chess, with just the furious rattle of tiles, the scratch of
pencils, the occasional "Challenge" rising softly into the air.
It is a game demanding instant recall of some 100,000 obscure,
common, gorgeous or ridiculous words--130,000 when, during the
world championships, the British list is included--which explains
why the executive director of the National Scrabble Association,
John D. Williams Jr., is only half joking when he says he fully
expects someone's head to explode during a tournament someday.
Though there are many fine female players--Rita Norr, in fact,
won the nationals in 1987--a consistent and crushing majority of
the Top 20 are men. No one can say why. Scrabble makes winners
of those who can compartmentalize their thinking while shutting
out panic and worldly worry, which may be why it attracts its
share of one-track geniuses who can barely hold a conversation.
"Talking to him is like talking to a Martian," one intermediate
player says of an expert. "But get him in front of a Scrabble
board ... then they all come alive. Then they become giants."
G.I. Joel is perhaps the most intense member of that subculture
of Scrabble fiends who study, obsess and talk the game, play
daily, argue strategy over the Internet--and shrug as the rest
of their lives wither. Top players include lawyers,
stockbrokers, teachers; but that's only because they have no
choice. If he could, "I'd give up my job," says England's Mark
Nyman, the '93 world champion who, at 29, would seem to have a
dream career as a TV producer. "I'd just travel around the world
looking at the dictionary."
Sherman doesn't even bother with pretense. He lives off an
inheritance, so he's free to serve as archetype for those
Scrabble grinds whose bright-eyed absorption is
all-consuming--people like Bob Lipton, who memorized words 12
hours a day for months to prepare for November's world
championship; or Robert Felt, who was so occupied with bemoaning
his Scrabble luck that he never noticed when the car in which he
was riding was rear-ended by a bus; or Alan Frank, who once
kicked a woman he had played against in the stomach. In 1980
John Turner, who would finish sixth in the nationals, became so
frustrated with his inability to place a Q that he ate it. "I
can compare it to the cast of Twin Peaks: There's a large
percentage of weirdos," Nyman says. "Of course, I'd like to
think I'm one of the normal ones." It's no accident that
whenever Alfred Butts is mentioned, Scrabble players emphasize
that he was an unemployed architect; who needs work with a game
Once at his home Sherman was in the next room while two others
played. One picked up the bag filled with two dozen pieces and
shook it. "There's a defective tile in there," Sherman called
out. There was; he had heard the paper label flapping. In August
'94 the pressure of the U.S. nationals proved too much for
Sherman; when he realized he couldn't win, he bolted from his
table and ran out to sulk in the parking lot. But a world
without Scrabble, he declares, would be "pretty much unbearable,
Now, a year later, Sherman teeters on top of the mountain. A
good, casual Scrabble player can expect to score 250 to 350
points a game but would be as lost here as a country-club champ
at the Masters; top-rated players regularly score close to 400
points against the stiffest competition. But by the second day
of the Showdown, Sherman has risen to an even higher level,
winning his first nine games, averaging 455 points and
threatening a runaway. "It's my whole life," he says. "Basically
I've been an underachiever in everything I've tried: Schoolwork.
Work. Social life. Winning this would validate my existence."
There is something strange, yes, but also something admirable
about Sherman's naked drive that makes him vaguely heroic. He
cannot relax, and as his second-place finish at the world
championship in London would later show, the same neediness that
makes Sherman great is also his worst enemy. Yet despite the
awful tiles--all vowels--pulled from life's Scrabble bag, despite
a body that, when he leans over a board, resembles nothing so
much as a battered suitcase refusing to close, Sherman has this
attitude: You deal me faulty health? Fine. I'll use the one
organ you left untouched, I'll uncover the one skill I have, and
I'll be excellent. Meanwhile he has found a like-minded
community of obsessive friends.
"It's not just a game," Lipton says. "Every one of these
tournaments is a family reunion. We all love each other."
Sherman, just walking by, overhears. He stops and smiles a
surprisingly sweet grin.
"That's not true," Sherman says. "There are at least three
people in this room I can't stand."
Did he do it? In Vegas, that was the only question whenever
Louis Schecter padded into view. Did he cheat?
Last June, Schecter, 43, the 37th-ranked player in the country,
was in a match against Charlie Southwell in a tournament in
Stamford, Conn. Suddenly, Southwell pointed out, a tile was
missing. He called over the tournament director, who demanded
that both players empty their pockets. "I didn't like that,"
says Schecter, a bookkeeper from Brooklyn. He refused. He was
disqualified, and word spread like a line out of Damon Runyon:
Did you hear? Louie palmed an E....
There was no proof, of course; who can say what happened? Though
that was as close as Scrabble gets to a Black Sox scandal, the
Schecter incident was hardly unique. During the four-day
Superstars competition, a Q dissolved into thin air during the
Darrell Day-Johnny Nevarez match; it was later found. "That
could've been cheating," says Joe Edley, a two-time U.S.
champion. "But nobody wants to cheat; otherwise they lose a
significant part of their life." Even those at the top aren't
immune: Nyman's father was once reprimanded after one such
mishap. "He's very absent-minded," says Nyman. "And
he got caught with eight letters on his rack. If you'd met my
dad, you can never imagine him doing it. It was just a slip."
Maybe, but it is impossible to know. Scrabble is a game of
personal honor; opponents police themselves and each other. As a
result it is rife with feuds and imagined slights and muttered
complaints. Players are as sensitive as flowers to any sign of
"coffeehousing"--the practice of trying to throw off an opponent
by slurping a drink, writing loudly ... or talking during a
match. After losing to Sam Kantimathi in Las Vegas, Geary
stomped out of the room, growling, "The one guy I didn't want to
lose to." Why? "He's an ass. I just don't like him. If I could
find a way to kick his ass, I would. He tends to rattle his
tiles whenever you play but manages to be so quiet when he's
playing. Aggghhh. Sam. Sam I am. "
Actually, though, there is less open confrontation than there is
sniping. Edley, the only player to win the nationals twice and
thus the closest thing Scrabble has to a Babe Ruth, is
constantly under fire for his perceived arrogance, his unique
status as both player and associate director of the Scrabble
association, and his alleged coffeehousing. Sherman calls Edley
Darth Vader. And after losing a match at Superstars to Edley,
Charles Goldstein buttonholed Williams for 10 minutes to
complain about Edley's demeanor. "He's a better player than I
am," Goldstein says, "but that's beside the point."
Edley shrugs off Goldstein's complaints, but he has seen
firsthand what can happen if enough Scrabble players decide
you're not right. Schecter, he says, was "ostracized in Las
Vegas." And it's true: In his first tournament since Stamford,
Schecter drifted about quietly, and usually alone. When an S
disappeared from his game with Robert Felt, it was taken as
further evidence of his guilt--never mind that the tile was later
found to have been misplaced in another bag. He finished 53rd
out of 54.
In the end, only one player stood up for Schecter, the same
player who went to Schecter's room in Stamford that night and
found him on the verge of tears. "He was being shunned like a
dog," Richie Lund says. "But I'm convinced he didn't cheat. I
think he took a bad rap."
Louis Schecter is a lucky man. Few voices in Scrabble carry more
authority than Lund's; the game is too important to him.
Everyone knows: Richie Lund, born in Brooklyn, raised in Phoenix
and shattered in Vietnam, owes Scrabble everything but his life.
Rack balancing? Clutch bingos? Deep word knowledge? Tile
management? Sure, Richie Lund has all that at his command, which
would be more than enough to secure his spot among the game's
elite. But with Lund there is an essential drama to his game
that is unique: In 1985, after months of study and play in the
Scrabble game anchored in New York City's Washington Square
Park, he emerged from nowhere at the North American Scrabble
Championship in Boston and stunned one of the game's masters,
Stephen Fisher. On the pivotal play of his final game, Lund
reached into the realm of obscurity and played "twinborn";
Fisher challenged the word, unsuccessfully. "One of the greats,"
Lund says, laughing at the memory. "And he wasn't sure of it!"
Lund finished third--like some club pro disposing of Jimmy
Connors on Super Saturday--and became an immediate Top 10 force.
But not just because of talent. Lund has won plenty of
tournaments but never a major title. "He has a bizarre genius,"
says Williams, "so he's respected beyond his accomplishments."
Maybe that's because, in the nebbishy world of Scrabble, the
48-year-old Lund is a walking anomaly. With long ponytail and a
uniform of black jeans, black T-shirt and three heavy gold
chains, he cuts a figure somewhere between Hell's Angel and rock
star. He lives by park code--he's the one top player who neither
tracks his tiles on paper nor ever asks for a recount during
tournaments--and his Marine Corps training and random giggle all
make for a fiery, intimidating presence: the Dark Lord of
Scrabble. "It's like playing Meat Loaf," Nyman says. "He's this
Vietnam vet ... and, ah, well, it's just the way he stares at
you." Then there are the explosions: At a tournament in Waltham,
Mass., in 1992, Lund shattered the mumbling, abbeylike quiet
with a screaming response after another player, Merrill Kaitz,
gave him the finger.
"I've never seen anything like this," says Matt Graham, a stand-
up comic who until recently had been one of the game's rising
stars. "Richie says, 'Give me the finger?! I'll break that
finger off and shove it right down your ---- throat!' He'd quiet
down and start thinking about it, and then he'd have to let
Merrill know again."
Lund, a chemist for Con Ed power company, has a reputation for
charm and generosity, but always on his terms; he maintains a
clean distance. Lund does not play or communicate on the
burgeoning Scrabble network on the Internet, and he has a
tendency to drop out of competition abruptly and lose contact
with even his closest friends--as he did for six months this
year. Part of his recent funk had to do with discovering, in
December '94, that his clogged arteries required a triple-bypass
operation. At the last minute Lund didn't go through with it,
but the knowledge that he was living with a time bomb in his
chest so affected him that his game declined. Just before Lund
sank out of sight in January, Graham pummeled him in an
unheard-of four straight games in New York. "He was sick,
coughing ... but I'm not going to let up on him," Graham says.
"I mean, this is Richie Lund."
Months later, just as abruptly, Lund resurfaced in Washington
Square. "His family, his friends, people in the park--nobody knew
where he was," says Betty Aberlin, an actress whose recurring
role in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe on Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood may have been the best preparation for her
friendship with the self-named "parkies." "And when he turned up
again, he acted like he hadn't been gone at all."
That's nothing. On this, the first day of the Showdown, Lund's
mother, Reggie Green, is sitting in a chair with her daughters
Rondi and Diane, watching him as if he were some kind of
revelation. Reggie and ex-husband Victor hadn't seen their son
for eight years--but, again, that is nothing. Diane hadn't seen
him for 13 years. Rondi hadn't seen him for 24. One reason is
that Lund hasn't boarded a plane since Vietnam, and it is a long
train ride from Brooklyn to Phoenix. The other is more complex.
"It was just tough for me to be around anybody," Lund says.
"Just people ... I'd have to go in the opposite direction.
Having this motorcycle, being able to jump on it, just go, get
away from things. Getting away ... getting away ... getting away
... getting away...."
In 1965, at the age of 17, Lund joined the Marines. By the next
year he was a radio operator carrying a PRC-25 on his back for
the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. He spent 26 months in
country, weathered the pounding of 152-mm shells at Khe Sanh,
and took "a smell of rotting flesh and napalm and cordite" in
his nose that he has never quite washed away. Too many buddies
died there. Between tours, Lund went home to Phoenix once. "I
think he felt guilty for being alive," Reggie says. "He came
back and it was Thanksgiving Day and I was standing in the
kitchen and all of a sudden I just stopped dead. My daughter
was helping me, and I said, 'Richard's at the door, Rondi.'"
Rondi told her mother that nobody had knocked, but she opened
the door and "he was just standing there and sweat was running
down his face and it wasn't even hot. Just running down his
face. When he came back [from Vietnam] he was dead inside.
Absolutely dead. "
One night Reggie was rubbing her son's head and it was late and
he began talking about the things he'd seen, about the bodies of
the Marines he went to find and how he found pieces dangling in
trees; about the time he stayed on the radio for three days and
four nights to keep a cut-off squad from losing contact; about
how one of his closest friends was blasted to pieces by a land
mine; about how he came to a Green Beret camp as dawn lifted and
it was too quiet and dozens of American boys lay scattered in
the dirt, stripped and bloody and dead. "'It's too horrible to
tell anyone,'" Reggie says Richie told her. "And he never talked
about it again."
Lund was mustered out in 1969 and spent the next six years back
home, wandering the country, doing drugs, odd jobs, nothing
much. "I felt comfortable only with fellow soldiers, so I
isolated myself," Lund says. In the mid '70s he began college in
Brooklyn. He saw a flyer for a Scrabble club; he'd played as a
kid. He became very good very quickly, but the best thing about
Scrabble was that it didn't leave room for memories. "It helped
a lot," Lund says. "It just gave me something else to focus on.
I get into it, it pretty much occupies my thoughts, takes it off
other things that can be damaging to me." He lived in New York.
He didn't talk to his family much.
But when Lund decided to head west for the Superstars, he did
something daring. He invited them all to Vegas. Maybe it was the
heart problems, or the fact that they'd never seen him play, or
the fact that he's pushing 50. He can't say. But something had
changed; Reggie could feel it. Still, she knows she is a distant
second to Scrabble. "It is absolutely the most important thing
in his life--above people, above feelings, his job, above
family," Reggie says. "It fills every gap in his life." And that
is fine; she'll take that, because, "I think Scrabble's the
thing that saved his mentality, his mind," she says. And as
Reggie sat and watched him play--badly, with Lund finishing
34th--she saw something she hadn't seen since he left for the
Marines 30 years ago: Richie, before the anger and fear. "When
he was in kindergarten, he drew pictures of turtles, and he'd
have this deep concentration, and I was looking at him and he
still had that," she says. "I saw something familiar and it was
almost like ... things were good. There he was, sitting there,
and all the heartache and stress and not being together ... all
that faded. It wasn't important anymore."
On the morning it all fell apart, G.I. Joel stood next to Nyman
at the sinks in the men's room at Bally's. Both were washing
their hands. Sherman turned to Nyman and said, by way of
conversation, "Do you get a lot of mucus before the game begins?"
By the third day Sherman's quick start had gotten swallowed up
by the leveling forces of luck, panic and the skill of current
U.S. champion David Gibson. Sherman eventually bombed out his
last seven games to finish 13th, but when he met with the
superstudious Gibson during the stretch run of the tournament,
he still had a chance. Gibson's record was 17-2, but Sherman, at
14-5, could position himself for first-place money with a win
here. "I don't even want to go over there," John Williams said.
"Sherman has this look on his face, and, frankly, it's
Sherman led midway, 162-149, but Gibson clawed out a 60-point
lead on a 77-point bingo with "toenails." A few turns later,
after drawing the second blank tile, Gibson laid down "mucoids."
Sherman stared at the board. Finally he held up his hand and
said, "Challenge." The tournament director came over with his
dictionary. There was a long silence. "That's acceptable," he
"Congratulations," Sherman murmured in the tone of a man
announcing a death. "You've won $50,000."
Gibson tried to wave this off, but it was true: By beating
Sherman he was all but assured of the biggest prize in Scrabble
history. "I have to be the unluckiest man alive," Sherman said
later. "Everything that could go wrong for me, went wrong. And
the funny part is, Gibson is one of the most modest guys
around." How modest became apparent when Gibson, a math
professor at Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College making less
than $40,000 a year, earmarked part of his winnings for the
elderly and doled out the rest, in individual checks accompanied
by a nice note, to all competitors not finishing in the top 10.
Gibson, obviously, is not your usual pro player. At 44 he is a
soft-spoken, unabashedly provincial mystic who clearly sees
Scrabble less as a game than as a calling. "It was meant to be,"
Gibson says. "I always did poorly in the SAT verbal, but about
10 years ago a supernatural love for words came upon me. When
you get changed, you can't help it. It's spiritual."
This is not a rare sentiment in Scrabble; it is, in fact,
something of a necessity to surrender yourself to the whim of
the game. Unlike chess, which is a distillation of learned
strategy, success in Scrabble hinges on constantly shifting
fate. You never know whether you'll get that precious blank or a
fistful of garbage. The bag is god, the bag is chaos--and
Scrabble is, in that narrow sense, quite like life; you can only
work with the pieces you're given. That's why so many top-level
players burn out. "They get frustrated because they know so
much, but they can't reach the pinnacle," says Cree. "They get
screwed by Lady Luck, and it's just too much to take."
But reaching the top doesn't guarantee peace either. Edley, like
Gibson, thought it kismet when he won his first U.S.
championship in 1980, but the suspicion that he was nothing but
a tool for fate left him depressed--"like a higher power was
leading me, and I didn't have much to do with it," Edley says.
He had always wanted to probe "the meaning of consciousness,"
but that title sent him off on other tangents: He flirted with
New Age psychology, a fruit-only diet, a regimen of Chinese
breathing exercises; after surviving these he decided in 1984 to
live in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. "I wanted to deal with
the last fear I had," says Edley. (He now lives, indoors, in
Always, he kept coming back to this frustrating game. In 1992,
after winning his second national title, Edley began to
understand why that was. "When you play Scrabble over time, you
look at yourself in the mirror," he says. "You're changing, and
it develops your mind. It's everything."
A down night at the Comic Strip in Manhattan. Matt Graham has
had his good moments: He's a pro. He has worked comedy clubs for
a decade, and three times he sailed through five minutes on Late
Night with Conan O'Brien. But tonight he's slowly dying. Tonight
he commits the sin from which he'll never recover: Unrolling a
perfectly disgusting, hilarious riff on Southern strip bars,
Graham begins talking about a particular Latinate term
for female genitalia ... and suddenly gets lost.
Instead of plowing on, he stops and, to himself, begins
wondering out loud whether that is singular ... or plural ... or
both? The crowd turns him off--what is he talking about?--and
Graham hurries to explain. "Tortured by words," he says into the
microphone. "Caught in the web of words ... that's me."
That's him. Graham, you see, could well be the next Seinfeld or
Phil Hartman, except that for too long he was possessed by the
thought of being the "John McEnroe of Scrabble." And for a time,
he was. With his schedule full of down time and delays, Graham
had the hours needed to study word lists and to play. His knack
for pulling off splashy plays in the tightest spots made
Graham's name, and by the time of the Superstars last August he
had reached expert status--and No. 6 in the Scrabble association
computer ranking--after only five years in the game.
But Vegas proved a disaster. Graham spent too much money he
didn't have getting there and then finished in what he considers
an unthinkable 38th place. His only consolation was handing
Gibson one of his three losses, but that wasn't enough, and he
is ready to give up the game altogether. "Gibson is what did it
to me," Graham says months later. "I mean, his 21-3 record was
unbelievable. And he's also this gentleman; he set the mark in
both performance and class, and that's seldom done."
Too, Graham may just be discovering that, oddly enough, Scrabble
is the wrong game to play if you're enamored of words. For at
this level, Scrabble's dirty little secret is that it is a word
game in which words mean nothing. The dabbler comes to the board
thinking definitions and word knowledge, and he gets swallowed
up in showing that off; but the experts care for words only for
their point value. The newest Scrabble dictionary expurgated
some 100 offensive terms, but they're all usable--no, welcomed--in
tournaments. Black players don't flinch when they see "nigger"
or "darky"; women congratulate any smart play of sexual slang;
and Joel Sherman, who is Jewish, didn't blink when Gibson opened
their second game with "yid," because no one cares. "They're
nothing but scoring tools," Sherman says. "One of my opponents
used [a synonym for sexual intercourse] at the end of the game.
He got 26 points. It was the right thing to do." Understanding
English isn't even necessary; a group of top Thai players do
quite well at major North American tournaments, and they barely
speak the language. "It started out as knowledge of words, but
now it's become something ... different," says Jimmy Young, a
30-year player and one of the pillars of the Washington Square
Park game. "Now I could play a guy who's a mongoloid idiot, but
he can compete because he just memorizes lists."
Gibson, naturally, is the apotheosis of '90s Scrabble, a math
expert who spends as much as seven hours a day poring over
interminable columns of words, caring less about what they mean
than that they are "acceptable." Graham, for one, isn't sure he
can last long in this world without going numb.
"Too much is needed to play at the level I want to play. It's
too consuming," he says. "I felt like I had no life. For now
I've made the choice, and it's comedy."
For a moment Graham goes quiet. After all, what else is there to
say? Except that he can't shake loose of the web just yet;
screwed by Lady Luck, haunted by Gibson, the comedian jerks up
his head. "How can he be that good?" Graham says, voice rising.
"He's not curing cancer. What did he do?"
An October Sunday in Washington Square. A blue-sky clarity
washes the air, blessing the kibitzers and clowns and dopers and
geniuses who hover over games that go on and on. The all-day
Scrabble game is split now: A lone board--Mathew the poet and
Forrest, who speaks a dozen languages and falls asleep
anytime--running among the speed-chess boys, and two more here at
the picnic benches where Aldo smokes his endless cigarette, and
Richie Lund, dressed in the usual black and gold, calmly
steamrollers all comers for a penny a point.
"The game is it for them," Betty Aberlin says of the parkies.
"Everything else, including rain, is just a distraction. I think
of them as the Lost Boys."
Like Graham, Lund was shattered by his poor showing in Vegas;
his concentration shot, he considered giving up the game
altogether. But he started playing in the park again, and the
atmosphere revitalized him--there is no purer form of Scrabble
than the New York game. On Oct. 1, Lund took his first
tournament in more than a year, beating a 26-expert field in
Ocean City, N.J. The win elevated him back into the Top 10. "My
confidence is up," he says. "I'm back. Yeah. I'm back."
But now they're all more interested in talking about Aldo, a
restaurant owner who has been playing for only six months. A
couple of days ago Aldo played the game of his life, beating
Jimmy Young. "And I always thought it was a sissy game," Aldo
"A sissy game!" Richie giggles. "I like that."
He reaches into the bag, shakes it, then bingos with "whiners."
Silence now: All the men are staring at the board, reading the
play. Out of nowhere a huge dog chases a wounded, fluttering
pigeon behind them, under the table, at their feet. "No! No!"
his master calls out, but it is too late; the dog has the bird
in its teeth.
None of the players moves, none notices the panic or noise or
rush to destroy. No one looks up from the game. No one sees the
dog trotting off with its prize, or the victim's eyes beginning