Articles | Film / Television
Unscrambling the Scrabble Subculture
Obsessed players populate 'Scrabylon,' a documentary about a cutthroat 'sport.'
By: Clare Kleinedler
Los Angeles Times
The "click-clicking" sound is almost deafening, but the tension in the room is so thick it nearly drowns out the clatter. Hearts pulse, mouths twitch and sweat glistens on the foreheads of the 700 or so players gathered to compete for a world title. Welcome to the cutthroat world of tournament Scrabble.

"Scrabylon," a feature-length documentary by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Scott Petersen, 34, captures the real-life characters that make up this quirky subculture. Shot primarily at the 2001 World Scrabble Championships in Las Vegas, the film offers an in-depth look at the people who dedicate their lives to the sport -- yes, they consider it a sport.

Although one might expect a reclusive, bookworm-ish lot, Petersen's subjects range from options traders to taxi drivers to homemakers -- all brought together by their love of anagramming.

"I'm fascinated by the Scrabble subculture. It's all about codes and signs and what you can and can't do," Petersen says. "It's sort of like a big family but with a large set of rules. I heard about this one player who was accused of cheating at one of the tournaments, and later another player found him in his hotel room crying his eyes out. The family ostracized him because he broke a rule. For a lot of the people in 'Scrabylon,' this family is a huge part of their lives."

"GI" Joel Sherman, 41, is one of those people; he goes so far as to say that Scrabble justifies his existence as a human being. Sherman, whose nickname stands for "gastrointestinal" because of his numerous stomach ailments, has won a national and a world tournament, and is considered by many to be the most devout player in the world. Because of his physical problems, he had been unable to keep a job and, to pass the time, decided to take up Scrabble. He won most of the games he played at the local Scrabble club.

"I started going to the Beverly Bridge Club in Manhattan and started playing seasoned Scrabble players," Sherman recalled in a recent interview. "At first, they took me to town, but I quickly recognized -- though I didn't have the dictionary learning they did - - that I had the skill to produce a lot of points on the board. You have to have a natural skill for unscrambling random letters into words, you have to be automatic at it. With only 25 minutes on the clock in a game, you need to use your time wisely."

Although it is necessary to have an eye for anagramming, there are other factors that make a top player, and every player in "Scrabylon" has a secret weapon, so to speak. Although Sherman is well studied in the game, it could be that his constant belching distracts his opponent. For three-time nationals winner Joe Edley, it's tai chi or meditation before a game, and for Marty Gabriel, it's intimidation. Gabriel illustrates this for Petersen by drinking vinegar straight from the bottle without flinching, a tactic he often uses during a tournament to psych out his opponent.

For Alan Stern, it could just be his world record. Although he ultimately lost, he participated in the highest-scoring tournament Scrabble game in history (the final combined score being 1,108, still a record), a feat that has brought him not only the respect of his fellow players, but also a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.

Men tend to rule the roost

If professional Scrabble seems like a boys' club, that's because it is. John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Assn., thinks it's because "women, by nature and society, are not allowed to be as selfish as men, so it's harder to dedicate the time necessary to become a top player."

Robin Pollock Daniel, 41, the current top-ranked female Scrabble player, agrees, but has enough tournament victories to have earned a name for herself. One game, in particular, solidified Daniel as a bona-fide Scrabble strategist.

"It was the world championship in '97 and I was up against an ex- boyfriend. He always seemed to kick up the game a notch when he played me and would get particularly excited when he'd crush me in a game," Daniel says, laughing. "We were both doing quite well, then I had a rack in the middle of the game with the letters A, F, I, N, R, S and T, and I'm thinking of how I can get rid of this rack. I see an open K [on the board] and I played 'ratfinks' and got huge points for that.

"It's amazing how you can allow the feelings you have toward your opponent to influence your game. I won that one."

Petersen's talent for making mundane subject matter interesting results in a film that plays out like a "Best in Show" about board- game lovers. Although some viewers may scratch their heads at how obsessive these players are about Scrabble, Petersen thinks it's all relative.

"Scrabble is their one quirky thing, it's their obsession. I think a lot of outsiders might see them and think they're weird, but everyone has their one obsession, which they think is normal just because it's theirs. Of course there are certain things in our culture that aren't looked upon very well, like if you're into chopping up your neighbors and putting them in the freezer, well, you've got problems. But Scrabble, it's pretty normal," he says, laughing.

Clare Kleinedler is an occasional contributer to the Calendar section.

Copyright © 2003 Los Angeles Times