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(This piece appeared in the early days of the Guardian Sport blog, which gave the great unwashed, or our valued readers, as they are sometimes known, the opportunity to give valuable feedback to us writers, the main tenor of which was usually 'I can't believe you get paid for this.')
Wordiness - Guardian Screen Break, October 6, 2008
Did you know that Eric Clapton is an exact anagram of Narcoleptic? Appropriate, I think, with reference to some of his fairly dull recent output, but not really much to do with sport, as I am sure I shall be told in no uncertain terms on the Guardian’s sports blog.
But hold on just a doggone minute there, people with computers and nothing better to do on a Monday morning – late Sunday evening in the USA – than tell semi-humorous columnists how much better you could do the job. My dictionary defines sport as “competitive activity involving physical exertion or skill, governed by rules, and sometimes engaged in professionally,” on which basis tournament Scrabble and its fiercely competitive participants (whose idea of a good time is rearranging guitar gods’ names) definitely qualify. They featured in Word Wars, a nifty documentary on the Sky Arts channel.
Yes, Sky Arts. I am afraid I deserted my post again. I know I have the attention span of a goldfish whose wife has just left him, but honestly, the sheer weight of European football on TV last week, just daunted me, leaving me full of ennui, weltschmertz, and all sorts of other foreign things we British should really not countenance. Faced with a Portsmouth UEFA cup tie at the end of what seemed like several hours of football played in half empty stadiums – which man would not hit the remote looking for naked women, car crashes, even cookery programmes?
Word Wars, subtitled Tiles and Tribulation (geddit?) in the World of Competitive Scrabble, was better than any of that. It reminded me of one of those Christopher Guest spoof documentaries like Best In Show, except its stars, word freaks with an eight games of Scrabble a day habit and an inability to visit Las Vegas without noting it is an anagram of Salvages, were real, and quirkier than anything Guest would dare invent.
In the style of the Guest movies, Word Wars focused on a few stalwarts of the circuit as they prepared for the national Championships in San Diego. (Or agonised, as they might say). G.I. Joel Sherman was the first we met, swallowing pre-tournament chromium picolinate tablets, while noting that picolinate is an anagram of antipolice.
Sherman’s flat looked like the aftermath of an explosion in Superdrug, with containers of brain boosting supplements jostling for space with remedies for Joel’s various physical ailments. He explained that the G.I. in his name is not a military thing, but stands for gastro-intestinal, he being something of a martyr to his stomach. I could believe it. He did not strike me as someone who would take the time to cook wholesome food. Not with several dictionaries to memorise.
Actually I am not sure I even saw a kitchen in his flat, the style of which could best be described as classic single-man-in-his-forties-with-an-obsession. Joel himself, were he a creation of Steve Coogan, would be played with shaving cuts and sticking plaster holding his glasses together. His hair was in a combover, and his eyes frequently red and swollen like those of a boxer the morning after, except in his case they were testament to late-night extra-curricular games of Scrabble against fellow word warriors.
What Joel had, which Coogan and Guest characters usually lack, was self-knowledge. At one point he says, “I have done very little to contribute to society. I don’t have a real life,” and then, after a nicely timed pause, “Even compared to other Scrabble players.”
If G.I. Joel was exactly what you were expecting, Marlon Hill was not. A big cheerful black man from an area of East Baltimore for which the term urban blight might have been invented, he wore his hair in dreadlocks, his drug of choice was a family-sized spliff, and his preparation for a tournament included an encounter with a prostitute, whose generously proportioned rear end he later happily eulogised for the cameras. Marlon was admirable in many ways; not least in giving talks to local black schoolchildren who might not have considered Scrabble as a way out of the ghetto.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film, though, was U.S. Number One at time of filming, Joe Edley, who had somehow got himself married and had a child. He meditated before a game, enabling the narrator to say: “Edley is unblocking his energies, Joel is unblocking his sinuses.” Tension built, and you found yourself rooting for your favourite to win the title. At least, this viewer, who would undoubtedly be known on the Scrabble circuit as Ken Tramliner, did.
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