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By Phil Hall | June 8, 2004

“Word Wars” is a quirky, entertaining documentary following four players in competition for the North American Scrabble championship. The quartet in question includes three-time champion Joe Edley, aspiring stand-up comic Matt Graham, the pot-smoking dreadlocked Marlon Hill, and G.I. Joel Sherman (the “G.I.” stands for gastrointestinal, and the film occasionally feels like an extended Maalox commercial as the poor guy fights to squash his acid reflux disorder).

Filmmakers Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo pull off a neat trick in making a compelling feature with these rather strange men. Edley is a smug, bland man who seems to have left his personality at the cleaners; he gives a lecture on how to win at Scrabble and it is too easy to fall asleep during his droning. Graham takes an excess of herbal supplements designed to improve brain power, though he doesn’t have enough cerebral fortitude to discard frayed clothing with gaping holes in the fabric. Sherman openly proclaims he has no talent for anything beyond Scrabble and he spends much of the movie offering too much evidence to support that statement. Only Hill has anything resembling a sense of humor, to the point that he allows the camera to record him picking up a hooker in Tijuana. A self-proclaimed “pre-Mecca Malcolm X,” he takes his Afrocentrism to the extreme of playing in a tournament under the flag of Ghana — even though he is a native of Baltimore. He is also the only one using his word power for a worthy cause: he runs an extracurricular Scrabble club in a Baltimore public school.

There is also a parallel universe of Scrabble addicts who stake out a corner of New York’s Washington Square Park for open air tournaments that are outside of the officially sanctioned games. The reigning champ, a restaurant owner identified only as Aldo, actually beat Joe Edley in an impromptu game (Edley weakly claimed he was distracted by the park’s noisy environment).

For anyone who loves the English language, “Word Wars” is a champagne cocktail. The players have memorized the most arcane, eccentric and worthless words imaginable and freely employ them across the Scrabble board. While the display of knowledge is often staggering, it is amusing that all of the film’s subjects except for Hill are frequently inept raconteurs. The viewer will be left wondering about the irony where people aggressively use words for gaming competition but lack the skills to use these words for poetic or provocative conversation. Talk about being anti-semantic!

Many Scrabble games can run for some length, and thus the film never gets the chance to follow an entire game from start to finish. But the bits and pieces that are presented here make for compelling viewing as seemingly impossible combinations of letters are played around to spell remarkable words. But sometimes the magic is elusive and in one heartbreaking moment Hill literally walks out of the tournament and forfeits a game when he finds himself stuck with a surplus of vowels which cannot possibly be spun into a prize-winning triumph. The image of the defeated Hill stalking away when words completely fail him is among the most memorable of the year–or, to recall the cliche, it proves a picture is literally worth a thousand words.

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