Word Wars (2004)
Starring: Joe Edley, Matt Graham, Marlon Hill, Joel Sherman
Directed by: Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo
I play a lot of Scrabble. Not an inordinate amount, I’m no obsessive and really couldn’t hang with the big boys who have all the two letter words in the English language memorised (to say nothing of all the Q words that do not require a U), but I probably play more often than the average joe. Mostly because my in-laws always get us to play it when we visit (well, to be more specific, my brother-in-law Billy, gets us to play it). It’s a fun game that, like all games I play, I play to win. I don’t really care if I impress others with my word choices, as long as I can maximise my scoring potential to win.
So, when I heard that there was a documentary on competitive Scrabble play, I was intrigued. Then I forgot all about it until the new documentary on crosswords, Wordplay caught my attention. So I decided to rent Word Wars to tide me over until our indie theatre picks up Wordplay.
Word Wars follows four top competitive Scrabble players for nine months of their wasted lives, leading up to the World Series of Scrabble of 2001 in San Diego. We meet reigning champ and yoga enthusiast Joe Edley who uses various relaxation techniques to help his game, Matt Graham a part time comedian and sometime-writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien who downs several brain-boosting drugs a day to help him in his pursuits, Marlon Hill a militant black man who rails against the social inequities inherent in the English language, and Joel Sherman AKA G.I. Joel a barely-employed geek with chronic gastrointestinal problems (hence, the “G.I.”).
At first, these quirky characters sounded like fun, harmless dorks who are lucky to have a passion in life, since they’re not ever going to become world beaters. But, as the film wore on, it became clear that obsession is not a pretty thing, and these are not appealing people. None of them hold down real jobs or participate in real life, such is the level of their obsession. Even worse, not only are they pathetic, but they also think that their abilities at a board game make them superior to others. There is not a trace of self-awareness in these four, just sad self-deluded men who give their all to a contest that carries a grand prize of $25,000, all the while sniping at one another and offering up nothing but excuses when they lose.
Despite the undesirable nature of the movie’s four protagonists, the movie itself still manages to be kind of fun. It is clear that those playing the game at the highest level play a game of which I am unfamiliar. They drop “bingos” with stunning regularity (words that use up all seven tiles, giving you a 50 point bonus score… I have never scored a bingo in my life), and are playing tonnes of words that I’m not convinced actually are words (but… they probably are). It’s pretty amusing watching the speed games of championship Scrabble, where competitors are allowed a total of 25 minutes to play, losing 10 points for every minute they go over. Even more amusing is watching players compete outdoors in New York City parks, like others do with chess. It never even occurred to me that people would do that.
Ultimately, the movie manages to build some drama out of the tense games of the World Series, but not as much as I’d hoped for because I couldn’t care if any of these four mutants actually won (although, it was sort of fun seeing some of them choke). The documentary pulls off some fun visual tricks, especially in revealing the importance of mastering anagrams to elite players, by showing a jumble of letters and then moving them around to reveal the words most of us won’t see. But, it’s obviously a low budget doc, so it won’t blow you away visually. It’s a fun movie if you’re into the game, worth the 72 minutes it takes to watch, but not a movie you’d be interested in if you’re not into Scrabble.