Word Wars

Official movie site

I’ve been a big fan of Andrew Chaikin for a long time. He’s an amazing vocal percussionist who I first saw performing with the House Jacks, but now does a variety of independent stuff. I’m on his email announcement list, so I get a heads up of all the neat and cool places he appears (that’s what convinced me to see the 7 Fingers Circus, for instance). On his last email, he mentioned that he was going to be doing a mini-show at the San Francisco premiere of a documentary that his brother had done on tournament Scrabble players. I was skeptical. Then he described the movie:

My brother Eric has spent the last 3 years making Word Wars, a documentary about the world of tournament Scrabble. It got into Sundance this year, and is now inching through theaters.

Word Wars follows four of the nation’s top-ranked Scrabble players as they vie for the National title. Each is intensely wacky in his own way: Joe Edley, the fearsomely calm tai-chi yogi; Matt Graham, the wired, smart-drug-popping standup comic; “GI Joel” Sherman, the gastrointestinally challenged (that’s what the “GI” stands for) world champ; and Marlon Hill, the spliff-smoking Black Power prodigy.

This is not your grandmother’s Scrabble. SF Weekly calls Word Wars “charming, hilarious, and brisk.” The Bay Guardian calls it “fresh and funny.” The Washington Post calls it “poignant… extraordinarily intimate.” The SF Chronicle called it “marvelous… thoroughly entertaining and hilarious,” and the little man is jumping out of his chair!

I figured, what the heck. If nothing else, a mini-show by Andrew would be worth the price of admission. And it was, especially the new live-looping stuff, which I hadn’t seen before; he uses a computer and some foot pedals to record a beat, starts that looping and then starts layering more stuff including vocals on top of it. Really incredibly neat stuff.

But the movie was awesome too. It was incredibly entertaining watching these obsessed Scrabble players. They are incredibly peculiar characters, at least the ones they followed. Most of them don’t have jobs; they’re too busy studying the dictionary four hours a day and playing several games of Scrabble after that. They study words constantly. Find anagrams everywhere. It’s kinda scary, actually.

A sold out show composed of geeks and nerds definitely helped the experience. At one point, they’re filming a critical game at Nationals. They zoom in on one player’s rack, something they’d done throughout the movie to show people the “Before” and later the “After” as the player then put down a seven-letter word using those letters. Except in this case, the letters are terrible. Something like AAOODEE. The audience audibly gasps. That’s what got me. That the audience gasped in horror at the sight of…letters on a Scrabble rack. How cool is that?

Go see it if you have any interest in Scrabble. It’s playing this week at the Roxie (they extended it a week because it was so popular) and up in San Rafael, or check out other upcoming screenings.