Thursday, January 25, 2007

Books about games

I'm now reading Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris and quite enjoying it. He writes about his wins (and losses) on Jeopardy and mixes in personal memoir and exercises for memory retention! It's an easy read and, although I'm not crazy about the hyperbole-humor, a lot of it is funny and strangely useful (the memory stuff). And a lot is quite affecting. He writes about how he did well in school to prove himself because he was a scholarship kid among privileged prep school jerks who took their position in life for granted and then a page later he's completely ashamed when he realizes his older sister never watches Jeopardy with him and his parents because she never had the education her brother had -- he's also a jerk taking his gifts for granted. Good stuff, the game descriptions are surprisingly tense and he does some interesting things skipping through time to pull out emotional material in the middle of the telling of a trivia game. Works to slow the reader down and think about what's going on, reminding us that, after all, it's only a game.

Trebekistan is much, much better than Crossworld by Mark Romano. Clearly going for a Word Freak vibe, Romano explores the world of competitive crosswords. The reason I finished the book is that the characters and subject matter is so compelling. The book has a lot of good details about tournaments and people, but the film Wordplay is a lot better. The introduction of John Delfin, a piano accompanist and crossword champion and constructor gives so much insight into his mind, his life and his personality in under three minutes. He seemed like a fascinating guy in Crossworld, but Romano never gets this deep. The other thing about this book is that Romano's voice really bugged me. He's constantly complaining about how smart he is (yes, that's what I wrote) with the point being that a) there are smarter people out there and b) book smarts isn't what always wins crossword puzzles. He also has a need to be one of the cool kids smoking in the back of the room. Not Stefan Fatsis.

Fatsis' Word Freak is about Scrabble, specifically competitive Scrabble. And Fatsis dives into being a geek. He's NOT as smart as these other people and they're weird but he wants to be like them (unlike Romano who is always trying to keep a cool distance, except when he's kissing Will Shortz' butt). I saw Fatsis at Wordsworth Bookstore (RIP) when the book came out and he was very engaging and a good reader. The book has lots of great characters and makes you want to play Scrabble. Also, now when I heard Fatsis on NPR I feel like I have some insight into his weirdest habits.

Oh, and another thing that bugged me about Romano's book is a totally nonsensical interpretation of the Disk of Phaistos.


slushy said...

my therapist wants me to join a scrabble club. to play scrabble? nah. to meet fellas. i think it's bollox. and i tried to read fatsis's's''s's book but found it somehow impenetrable. so it goes.

Peter said...

This is self serving since the game I am linking is my own, but before anyone decides to join the world of competitive Scrabble, you might take a look at it.