Tuesday, January 15, 2008

It doesn't pay to be a wordsmith

Maggie says:
Netflix - which I love unabashedly - has this great "Watch Instantly" feature, and every account comes with something like 20 hours of online movie viewing each month. This is great for someone like me who's a night owl, likes instant gratification, and has 190 movies in the queue. This month I'm racing to get through all the Oscar-potential movies I can while ignoring one of my favorite guilty pleasures - weird documentaries - none of which I'm prioritizing in my queue in the lead-up to Oscar.

But sometimes, the guilty pleasures call and call hard. While sick last week, I watched "Born into Brothels" with a click of the mouse, which is just amazingly beautiful. And although I have what is by all accounts an incredibly moving performance by Julie Christie in "Away from Her" sitting on my shelf, last night I had to log in and watch "Word Wars" instead, the Scrabble documentary I've been meaning to get to for ages.

Wow. This movie isn't great by any means. But it's incredibly illuminating about how crazy these tournament Scrabble people are. Just nuts.

We meet four main characters on the road to the 2002 Scrabble National Championship in San Diego: "G.I." Joel Sherman, who nicknamed himself after his gastrointestinal condition and looks every bit the Scrabble nerd and GI-sufferer you expect; Marlon Hill, the black dredlocked guy who makes rather interesting choices for himself on-camera (hint: a Tijuana prostitute is featured); Matt Graham, a strange man who looks fairly normal but has some real social adjustment issues, I think; and Joe Edley, who markets himself as a huge deal but seems to be post-glory in his career.

These people are a mess. Life lessons learned from the Scrabble documentary:

  • Keep your day job. None of these people actually have a career. Their lives revolve around Scrabble in every way possible. Edley took a nightwatchman job just so he could study, but it doesn't seem like anyone else is ever paid to do anything. They take brain vitamins by the bucketful. They practice flashcards while driving. They do anagrams in their sleep. They have no other skills. One of the best moments comes from a kid who's doing well in the youth division and is asked if he wants to make it to Division 1 some day. He basically gives those guys a look worth millions and says he wouldn't want to be so crazy about Scrabble he couldn't hold down another job. Well done, kid.
  • REALLY keep your day job. These guys are broke all the time. I looked at some of their stats today and the career winnings seems to average in the low $30,000s. That's CAREER. And they pay their own expenses for travel. And they're always borrowing money from each other. In a word, depressing.
  • Side bets are big. It appears that the big action at these huge tournaments isn't the official play, but what happens on the side. Who knew Scrabble betting was so huge?! Fascinating.
  • You will be lonely. Women are not really a part of this documentary, or the Scrabble life, it would seem. There's an interesting five minutes where some women chat about why they're not a bigger part of the competitive Scrabble scene, but we never see them again. It goes without saying that we do not see them anywhere near our Scrabble heroes, either, unless you count those paid for their time. Marlon and Matt profess to hate each other, but are clearly so lonely that they crave each other's companionship. These "enemies" stay in hotel rooms together, wake each other up, and shave each other's necks. Co-dependency in all its glory.
  • It's math, not words. One of the women makes one of the best points of this whole thing (imagine that!), which is that competitive Scrabble playing isn't at all about words, it's about math. It's not about what words mean or how they are used (knowing the definitions is even considered baggage to some)... it's all in the probability of how words are constructed and how many letters have been played. Reason #47758844 why I'll never be a competitive Scrabble player.
  • Still... fun to watch. If you've ever played Scrabble, there's no way not to be amazed when you watch these guys play. I've never seen finished boards look anything like theirs do, and the speed is breathtaking.
  • Go to Washington Square Park. The best parts of the film feature a rogue Scrabble collective that plays in NY's Washington Square Park. I love this group. They all consider the tourney guys freaks and nerds who can't handle the real world. Read: who can't play at the level warranted when surrounded by the elements of weather, by women screaming at each other, by kids running, and by protesters marching right behind the table. These guys are cool, and the real winners of this flick.