You wouldn't think the life of a professional Scrabble player would be all that demanding. You just put a few letters together and hope for the best, right? But the four competitors at the center of Word Wars, a documentary showing on the Discovery Times Channel this week, spend every waking hour thinking about anagrams, letter combinations, and Bingos (bonus points that are awarded if all seven tiles are played in a single turn). They come off as the most agitated, misanthropic, and fucked-up people ever to play a board game.
"I don't see them as a bunch of misfits and outcasts," insists co-director Eric Chaikan, a player who ranks himself "at the bottom of the expert division." "My whole goal was to humanize the characters and show what an intense pursuit this is."
Word Wars follows a quartet of players on the road to the National Scrabble Championships: Joe Edley, known to foes as "Darth Vader" because of his alleged use of mind control during games; Matt Graham, a struggling stand-up comedian addicted to "smart drugs"; Marlon Hill, a pot-smoking black man who speaks and writes in Ebonics; and Joel Sherman, nicknamed G.I., because of his gastrointestinal problems.
"The whole goal was to make a movie, not a documentary," Chaikan recalls. "I wanted characters who could hold a story arc for a whole movie. I wanted people with clearly defined tragic flaws -- standard storytelling stuff."
Chaikan -- who was featured in Stefan Fatsis's 2001 best-selling exploration of Scrabble subculture, Word Freak -- says that his familiarity with the game's culture (pickup contests frequently take place in city parks; many players are single white males) and its most revered players allowed him not only to get close to his subjects, but to peg 2002's champ (Sherman, who also snagged the title in 1997). "Yes, it was great that one of our guys won," he admits. "But we interviewed a lot of people, and we could have [turned] a couple of them into main characters. But these four were clearly our guys from the start."
Chaikan says his movie (which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival) is not just a variation on last year's Spellbound, which charted eight teens' paths to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. "That's a more traditional documentary, where they covered the characters, and then you see them compete," he explains. "I wanted to have an Act 2, where you are on the road and in the rooms with the players, seeing them interact with each other."
And despite the drama that erupts onscreen -- Graham and Hill almost come to blows in a hotel room, and a bride's special day is interrupted by a impromptu game outside her reception hall -- Word Wars is ultimately an affectionate portrait of people who are simply passionate about language. "It sometimes goes past being about words and past being useful," Chaikan says. "That's the line I wanted to explore. These guys wake up every day, and their words are their currency."
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