Four scramble for Scrabble championship


August 19, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The more uncertain the times, the more we love games. The pattern is so consistent - stretching back through history to the TV quiz shows of the 1950s and radio giveaways of the 1930s - that it is practically a given in American popular culture.

So it's not surprising that television screens these days are filled with games of poker and blackjack, while quiz shows like Jeopardy break ratings records as we ride a roller-coaster economy in the wake of 9/11. Word Wars, a documentary that follows the fortunes of four men who are consumed by Scrabble, speaks to our heightened interest in games with insight, sensitivity and a certain fondness for the neuroses that make us both winners and fools.

Little is new about the dramatic structure of the film. It uses the tried-and-true sports formula of following a group of contestants as they work their way to the championship game - in this case, a national Scrabble tournament in San Diego and a grand prize of $25,000. Spellbound, a 2002 documentary that tracked several teenage contestants to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, worked the formula for more thrills and spills along the way.

But the unique personalities of the four players in Word Wars more than make up for any lack of originality in storytelling.

Joe Edley, the three-time national champ who was formerly homeless, psyches out his opponents with Tai Chi and what appears to be a photographic memory for endless lists of obscure words. The frail Joel Silver, known as G.I. Joel thanks to gastro-intestinal problems that keep him swigging Maalox non-stop, seems closer to collapse than greatness. And then there's Matt Graham who - in an attempt to raise his Scrabble I.Q. - consumes "smart drugs" the way Silver does antacid.

Last but not least is Baltimorean Marlon Hill, who compares himself to Malcolm X while allowing the filmmakers to record his use of drugs, coarse language and issues of anger management. A big source of tension at the games is the question of whether Hill will control his passions or be controlled by them.

Words Wars airs at 8 tonight on the Discovery Times cable channel (available on DirectTV and digital cable in the various Comcast cable systems in Maryland). In Baltimore City, Discovery Times is Channel 111.

To see a video of David Zurawik reviewing "Word Wars," go to

Word Wars

When: Tonight at 8.

Where: Discovery Times cable channel.

In brief: A sensitive and amusing look at four men who live to play Scrabble.

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