Some years ago, I read the book “Word Freak” by Stefan Fatsis. In the book, Stefan becomes involved in the competitive Scrabble tournament world. He described the games and the personalities that make the subculture so fascinating. Ever since, I have told those who want to understand what is so compelling about playing tournament bridge as I do to read that book and just replace the Scrabble tiles with a deck of cards.
Now I have another reference to add. The movie “Wordplay” came out in 2006, but Scott and I just recently watched it. The movie centers on Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Time, puzzle master for NPR and King of Nerds. Over thirty years ago, Will established the National Crossword Puzzle Championships, which is held each year at the Stamford, CT Marriott. We are treated to the 2005 version of the tournament. The movie gives us short profiles of some of the top contestants. As one would expect, the contestants are uniformly smart and there is definitely more than just a hint of Asperger’s Syndrome going on. You can tell that some of these people find it very difficult to relate and communicate with other people without a crossword puzzle to mediate the experience. (Scott wants me to mention the supportive boyfriend of one of the contestants, who is slightly mystified by the puzzle obsession, but cheers his partner on for all he’s worth.)
There are also celebrity interviews with Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Mike Mussina, the Indigo Girls and Daniel Okrent (by far the least “celebrity” of them all). These are the least compelling parts of the movie. They are meant to represent the great mass of people for whom crosswords are an entertaining hobby, but they do draw away from the overall narrative of the movie.
The makers of this movie were very fortunate in picking this particular tournament to feature, as there was a great deal of drama and reversals of fortune all the way through the final puzzle. For me, however the real takeaway from this movie is the story of a community, if not wholly created by Will Shortz, then called together and made known to each other by him. One woman describes how her husband of many years died of a heart attack right after one of these tournaments at the Stamford Marriott. While the memory is difficult for her, she comes back every year because this is where she feels most at home and most accepted. It was a very gripping moment.
As I watched this movie, I saw my own experience reflected over and over again. The bridge world mirrors the crossword world in so many ways. Watch this movie and you will understand.
By the way, the DVD has some great extras. In particular, there are five short vignettes about some particularly interesting crossword puzzles that have appeared in the New York Times this decade, and a short clip of Will working at his favorite hobby (this is away from puzzling). If you are a dedicated NPR Sunday Morning listener, then you surely know what this hobby is.
I really enjoyed this movie a great deal and would recommend it to everyone.
Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive ScrabblePlayers