As Word Wars proclaims, the game played in National Scrabble Association tournaments is “not your grandmother’s Scrabble.” And what a shame — according to this fascinating but ultimately unpleasant documentary about cutthroat Scrabble competition, grandmother’s game was a lot more fun.
The Scrabble champions in Word Wars, most of them men, are unlikable, obsessive fanatics who don’t even love words. Unlike the spelling-bee teenagers in Spellbound, the players in Word Wars don’t care about definitions. Scrabble isn’t a game of words to them, but one of numbers. The alphabet is merely a string of 26 discrete units of varying values. Words using “q,” for example, being rare and difficult, can be worth as much as 50 points.
Speaking of q’s, each of the four Scrabble caziques highlighted in the film is a quirky oddball, a verbal vaquero if you will, shooting weird words instead of bullets. These guys know that the quivers in their achievement bows don’t rest on the tiles in the once-quaint parlor game but in their physical and mental preparedness for competition. Every quark of their brains is geared toward Scrabble. They don’t quake at the task of memorizing the dictionary, nor do they squawk at the low pay on the Scrabble circuit. Usually unemployed, they’ve at least earned global perspectives from words such as quokka (a short-tailed Australian wallaby), quetzal (a Central American bird), and aquavit (Scandinavian liquor). Playing such a q-word can make the difference between being laid out in a sad Scrabble exequy or squeaking into the winner’s spot.
Scrabble competition is quicks-chewing stress. Eventual winner “G.I.” Joel Sherman (G.I. stands for gastrointestinal) has such a notoriously queasy stomach that Maalox is his constant companion. These players are no closet Quakers either. Psychological warfare is the name of the game, and players who quaver from it should seriously quiz themselves on their Scrabble commitment. Even during a Scrabble quickie, the competition can be so keen that a worn-out player can feel like a quacked kumquat.
Surely any woman considering being the main squeeze of a Scrabble nut should think twice. Your guy is more into counting the scores of the letters in quartz than making enough money to buy a diamond. He might give you a jonquil bouquet and wax quixotic on the equinox, but don’t be hoodwinked — what he’s really doing is re-arranging letters in his head. After seeing Word Wars, my advice is to run away from such a guy, quickly, and instead find someone who likes to play a nice card game like bezique.
— reviewed by Marci Miller