Most men don't care whether or not they have a nice rack. Then again, most men aren't ranked, division one tournament Scrabble players. Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit follows four men with nicer racks than most in the nine months leading up to the 2002 national Scrabble championships in Diagnose [an anagram for San Diego].
There's plenty of wordplay in this crowd-pleasing documentary by Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo, which debuted at Sundance this year to sold-out houses. The cinetrix caught its fourth and final screening at the Independent Film Festival of Boston at noon today at the Brattle. Since Park City, Word Wars has been picked up by Discovery and The New York Times, which may explain its projected video presentation. The opening credits are graphically inventive, tracing pink and gray gridded Scrabble squares over assembly-line footage of Scrabble sets being manufactured, but nothing in this word-drunk movie risks getting lost in a move to the small screen. Director Chaikin, himself an off- and on-again tournament player, was in attendence, and if the momentary technical difficulties threw him [the doc had not been rewound after the previous screening], it didn't show. I suspect he's a good clutch player.
"You can be God if you've got the right tiles," a Scrabble player in Washington Square Park observes at the beginning of the film. With that invocation to the muses, we are introduced to four aspiring logodeities [challenge!] at a tournament in Salvages/Los Vegas: Matt Graham, a comedy writer and vitamin freak with a labret piercing; "G.I." Joel Sherman, a nebbish beset by acid reflux; Marlon Hill, an affable dreadlocked stoner from a family of Scrabble players in East Baltimore, who has a lot of theories about language and race; and Joe Edley, the reigning champ and a self-styled Zen sage given to imprompteau Tai Chi.
The filmmakers set up a dicotomy between the park players and the tourney types--a la Searching for Bobby Fischer--but don't fully explore it. Still, the former function as a Greek chorus that provides a lot of valuable background information, as well as snarky asides. It's a clever way to avoid the traditional documentary talking heads scenario. We learn that tempers flare because some folks don't always take their meds, women also play competive Scrabble, and numbers-inclined people like math teachers tend to play better than the English teachers you'd expect to do well. It's a tight little community, one in which everyone seems to know Edley's mythology and delights when neighborhood champ Aldo beats him in a far from friendly game in the park. The color and variety of the park sequences also balance the less visually compelling hotels [the Venetian excepted] and convention centers in which the rest of the story takes place.
So why these four guys? Aside from being friends of Chaikin's and subjects of Stefan Fatsis' 2003 book Word Freak, they were interesting characters [Marlon alone is a walking screenplay] who played each other and had the chops to go all the way. Who will win?
The journey to the nationals goes through a money game with inveterate gambler Matt at G.I. Joel's Bronx home [$1,000 rides on the best of 50 games straight], a tournament in Madfrost/Stamford [CT] that sees the first Speed Scrabble game in competition, and an event in One Veranda/Reno, Nevada. There are detours to the Hasbro headquarters in Providence, Rhode Island, and a Baltimore elementary school where Marlon extols the beauty of the game to a classroom of kids. Along the way our four heroes are up and down, hot and cold--Marlon even hits Tijuana for a little stress relief [ahem]--but their gaze never wavers from the $25,000 purse for first place. The final confrontation, scored to Miami Vice-style guitar heroics, is detailed play by play: Fischer and Spassky meet Rocky. Hack reviewers could be forgiven for pulling out the old "stand up and cheer" sobriquet. It's good stuff.
Scrabble is a great equalizer. As Marlon explains to the schoolkids, it's just like life. You get seven tiles; it's up to you to make the most of them. Sometimes, like this film does, you hit bingo.
Word Wars is rated 1900 [ha ha ha].
[You can read a two-part interview with the directors, conducted by OGIC back in January, here.]