Scrabble was created back in the 1940’s by a man named Alfred Butts. Originally called “Criss-Cross Word Game”, Scrabble has now evolved into one of the most popular board games on the planet. There are over five hundred Scrabble clubs in North America today. People in Thailand use Scrabble to improve their English.
Scott Peterson’s charming and funny new documentary “Scrabylon” has as it’s backdrop the 2001 World Scrabble Championship in Las Vegas, NV, where one hundred of the top Scrabble players in the country gather to compete for the grand prize of $25,000, a loving cup from Tiffany, and the adulation of their fellow players.
Peterson has a wide variety of types to choose from, and he has found a bumper crop of eccentrics to focus on; Joel Sherman, AKA “G.I. Joel”, is one of the most interesting (G.I. stands for gastrointestinal, because, we find out, Joel is allergic to everything and has a tendency to bolt for the bathrooms in the heat of the moment). Sherman, an ex-bank teller, has the demeanor of a concentration camp victim, but is fiercely intelligent. It’s sadly humorous when he glumly sounds off on his various ailments, sealing them with a belch.
We meet others, like working mom Robin Daniel, a Canadian who is one of the few women in competition (“Women don’t have as much time as men for such foolishness’ is her explanation, which sounds right to me); stand-up comic Matt Graham; free spirit and three-time champion Joe Edley; professional gambler Jim Geary; Chris Cree, practical joker and Texan extraordinaire; and Brian Cappaletto, Chicago stock trader and former teen champion, who was called “one of the best players in the world” before he quit in protest of the meager prizes being awarded. It seems that the original prize of $10,000 wasn’t worth the time.
“Scrabylon” is chock-full of information on the game (John D. Williams, the organizer of the event, shares some terms with us such as “Bingo” “Coffeehousing” “Eat The Q” and others). There are quick interviews with people like Ben Loiterstein, who hosts a cable access show where people call in with their moves, and Stefan Fatsis, author of the history of competitive scrabble, “Word Freak”. Unlike some other competitions, the players here have a refreshing sense of humor about themselves and what they do, making their obsessions interesting instead of merely creepy and sad. I think my favorite moment is when Edley is being interviewed outside the convention hall, and he is earnestly relating his experiences to the camera, when from out of nowhere come…a pair of rabbit ears, in the form of Chris Crees fingers. “Too serious!” he yells as Edley dissolves in laughter. Too serious, indeed.