Word Wars

Marlon HillSomewhat ironically, the evening after I wrote the entry below I had an entertaining opportunity to consider words used as blunt weapons of strategy and competition. I watched the documentary film, Word Wars, directed by Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo and featuring a real-life cast of tournament-level Scrabble players. It provides a fascinating view into the reality of those who take words so seriously they dedicate their lives to studying endless lists of them. In order to arm themselves against each other these word warriors, as it were, work to master the English language in its most literal aspect: spelling – and rote memorization of the many ways in which letters can be arranged and combined into the highest scoring words possible in a competitive situation. Marlon Hill, perhaps the film’s most memorable character – an African-American savant who decries just about everything (and is hilarious doing so) – eschews even paying attention to the definitions of the multitude of words he memorizes. Marlon says definitions just complicate and confuse things and that it’s only important for him to know a word exists, how to spell it, and maximize his score.We learn of Marlon’s major issues with European civilization as epitomized by the English language, which he feels subjugates him and his race. Nevertheless, Marlon has mastered it – at least in its lexicographical aspect. His memory is as prodigious as his temper is short. His inclusion in Word Wars goes a long way toward rendering the world of Scrabble tourneys in a palpably human dimension.Perhaps closer to the stereotypical word geek is Joel Sherman, the 1997 Scrabble World Champ. Sherman’s nickname, “G.I. Joel,” refers to his chronically malfunctioning gastro-intestinal tract. He is never without his medication or his word lists. G.I. Joel’s triumphs are always bittersweet.Matt Graham, a stand-up comedian from New York is like many of his colleagues in that he attempts to eke out an income from the meager winnings available in even the biggest Scrabble tournaments. It’s not fame and fortune that motivate these individuals though – it can’t be because they cannot achieve them. The film makes clear we’re dealing with a fanatical group of obsessive souls who are compelled to play this game because they have the rare and otherwise useless ability to do so. They appear tyrannized by words even as they struggle to come to terms with them.Then there’s Joe Edley, a family man with a real job who seems the most normal of the bunch – at least until you hear him spout a constant barrage of new-age lingo and execute physical and mental exercises that propel Zen and high anxiety toward new levels of compulsive behavior. Edley is a strange combination of winning and losing wrapped up in one lifetime. In this he’s an Everyman.On its face, Word Wars is a great documentary about a terribly minor subject. But it gets you thinking about words in some very unique ways. Of course, the game of Scrabble has as much to do with chance and dumb luck as it does with the ability to memorize the dictionary. That’s probably why it’s so compelling. We see words stripped down to their bare essentials, objectified, and reified into concrete entities. And we get a glimpse into those who live their lives according to the permutations of letters that comprise our mental landscape. It’s as if these word warriors are engaged in an epic struggle against the forces of chaos that threaten to turn meaning into gibberish and our very language into an anarchy of ciphers.

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