Before the recent National Scrabble Championship, Eric Chaikin was trying to cram for it. But there just wasn’t enough time.
He was too busy promoting the documentary he co-directed “Word Wars,” which profiles the game and some of Scrabble’s most skilled players.
The film, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, airs 8 p.m ET Thursday on the Discovery Times Channel’s “Screening Room” series.
Co-director Julian Petrillo, who describes himself as slightly better than a “garden variety Scrabble player,” has known Chaikin since both attended Brown University.
“I sometimes like to glibly refer to Eric as a recovering Scrabble player, but as he likes to say ... he’s not actually recovering,” teases Petrillo. (Chaiken managed to participate in the tournament July 31-Aug. 5.)
Their documentary focuses chiefly on four top-ranked, obsessed players of the crossword board game, which was invented during the Depression by an out-of-work architect, Alfred Mosher Butts.
The dedicated tile shufflers — Joe Edley, Matt Graham, Marlon Hill and Joel Sherman — are revealed in all their fascinating eccentricity as they moved from preliminary competitions into the nationals in 2002 in San Diego.
“Basically these four characters distinguished themselves pretty early as a compelling, cohesive group,” Chaikin said.
The world of Scrabble
The movie reveals a bag-shaking, tile-picking, quick-thinking subculture, ranging from improv matches in New York’s Washington Square Park to Hill’s games at home in Baltimore with his mother to the intense sessions of official competition.
Exposed are the fetishes and rituals of a game. Clever graphics using anagrams and word definitions help in probing the players’ minds.
Costing in the low six figures, the 77-minute movie was edited down from about 200 hours of footage shot over about 18 months.
“Everybody thinks they know Scrabble, but they don’t know Scrabble like these guys know Scrabble,” says Vivian Schiller, Discovery Times senior vice president.
Schiller recognized “before they had finished shooting” that the documentary fit the “Screening Room” mission “to tap into American cultural trends that people don’t know that much about, that speak to something larger about society.”
Chaikin and the “Word Wars” competitors hope that TV audiences will want to see more of the game. The 2001 best-selling book “Word Freak” by journalist Stefan Fatsis raised its profile. This documentary may give it another boost.
Last year, ESPN televised a $100,000 all-star Scrabble game, and on Oct. 3, the network will air an edited version of the now completed 2004 national championship in New Orleans.
So the game is taking its place on television next to high-stakes poker games and spelling bees — which may help make a star of Sherman, the pre-eminent player whose gastrointestinal problems have earned him the nickname “G.I. Joel.”
“Poker has one small advantage over us in that it doesn’t really require the amount of study, yet Scrabble is still very accessible,” Sherman says. “Chess and poker are kind of artificial. They are put together out of things that are not part of our everyday use, but Scrabble is put together out of things that we absolutely use everyday — language and math skills.”