Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground

Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground by John D. Williams, Jr. is a Scrabble book which was published in 2015. My library system has had it in its collection for four years yet I never thought of reading it until now. I have a personal library of Scrabble books yet all of them had been read before I started writing and posting book reviews in early 2010. Thus 2020 marks my tenth anniversary of sharing my reading list with the cyberworld.

Williams was the former executive director of the National Scrabble Association, and I would always see him at the large Scrabble tournaments, such as the Nationals or Worlds. Thus I came to his book already knowing who he is and all about Hasbro’s decision to pull out of the National Scrabble Association. I am part of the community he is writing about, and recognize all of the player names in the book. I have even played most of them. So my background as a reader is that of an insider who did not need to read this book to learn anything new. That said, I did nonetheless find that its presentation relied on knowing a considerable degree of backstory. I wonder if Williams wrote this for the audience of hundreds of Scrabble tournament and club players who may have felt abandoned by the corporate pullout. When Hasbro stopped promoting and funding tournaments, Williams lost his contact with us and maybe this book was his effort to have the last word. 

It was a short book–about 195 pages when you eliminate the end-of-book word lists and the reproduction of a New York Times article–which read like a long resumé of Williams’s career with the NSA. He was instrumental in starting the English-language World Scrabble Championship and in developing the School Scrabble program. I enjoyed reading about the times Scrabble champions appeared on TV, whether on “Martha Stewart Living” or “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” as I saw those episodes (and still have them on VHS). Williams sometimes had hard times wrangling Scrabble champions for morning shows especially if they were appearing the day after a celebratory victory party. 

One chapter focussed on men’s domination of the uppermost Scrabble ranks, and Williams interviewed three of the leading women players to learn their opinions. I was happy to read that none of these players, all of whom I have played, felt as if their male opponents were holding back or deferring to them in any way. “She’s just another expert”, according to Williams. We treat our opponents as equals. The late expert player Leah Katz said that Scrabble was the “great unifier”, and I have met my closest friends–as well as my life partner–across a Scrabble board.

Those who write Scrabble books have to be particularly careful about their spelling. For the most part, Williams’s book was error-free. However, perhaps by the next printing he can correct the player’s name to Lynn Cushman (p. 41; not Lynne) and fix qwwali (p. 210) to qawwali. His #1 tip to “instantly get better at Scrabble” erroneously states “Learn the 101 acceptable two- and three-letter words”. Umm, there are a lot more than 101 two- and three-letter words. What Williams might have meant is that there were (at the time of publication) 101 two-letter words alone. Regrettably the book ended with a disappointing transposition of words. When Williams found a Z and E tile in a corner of his attic, he wrote:

“I knelt down and switched around them on the floor.” (p. 199)

If only he had written (and he likely did) “I knelt down and switched them around on the floor” I would not have had a quizzical look and obligatory reread at the very end of the book.

Perhaps the most enlightening moment occurred while I was reading the chapter entitled “Are Men Really Better than Women?” when the author wrote:

“Men do have an affinity for trivia, collecting, and focusing on one thing to the exclusion of others. In my experience, women, not so much. Scott and I talked about how it’s boys and men who early on memorize baseball statistics, car features, and other arguably useless facts. It’s an easy transition from that dubious pastime to studying and learning thousands of esoteric words that no one else knows or uses.”

I had been keeping a running total of how many times Williams had used esoteric or esoterica so far in the book. The above passage made it four times between the two. I felt that using esoteric/esoterica twice was too many times–once would suffice for such a small book–yet when I realized the surrounding context wherein the word was used I could only roll my eyes and think of myself as a typical male Scrabble expert. 

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