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Talking with Scrabble 'Word Nerd' John D. Williams

Author John D. Williams at his home in

Author John D. Williams at his home in Greenport, June 10, 2015. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

When John D. Williams Jr., began writing freelance articles in 1982 for an in-house publication of Scrabble manufacturer Selchow & Righter, he was an aspiring novelist living in an old Victorian house in Greenport, which he describes as then being "a combination of a little fishing village and a beach town." Just a few years later, he was executive director of the National Scrabble Association, an organization to promote the venerable board game funded by Scrabble's new owner (Coleco), headquartered in a former sea captain's house a few blocks from Williams' home. Today, old Victorians like his have been snapped up as second homes by New Yorkers, and Greenport is experiencing abble boost in popularity something like the one Williams gave Scrabble during his career at the association. As recounted in his lively memoir, "Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground" (Liveright, $25.95), Williams got Scrabble on ESPN and Jimmy Kimmel, created a School Scrabble program and persuaded Hasbro (owner No. 3) to put up cash prizes for tournaments. Although Williams has resigned and the association closed in 2013, he still had plenty to say about his relationship with Scrabble in a recent conversation.


You co-authored a bestselling how-to book, "Everything Scrabble." What made you decide to write more about the game?

I decided it would be a nice closure to my years at the National Scrabble Association. There have been some great books, especially "Word Freak" [by tournament player Stefan Fatsis], which really nailed it from one point of view, but no one had really told the inside story about the administration.


You make it clear in the book that tournament Scrabble players had an ambivalent attitude toward you as a corporate representative. Was that hard to deal with?

It was. A lot of the tournament players are counterculture, noncorporate types -- the funny thing is, I was kind of an ex-hippie myself. I felt like saying, "Hey, I protested the war, I'm more like you guys than those suits I represent!" In fact, sometimes the only time I wore a suit during the entire year was when I was at a Scrabble championship. It was very challenging to be taken seriously; that's why I became a tournament player.


Did you have a favorite tournament experience?

The first tournament I ever played in, I won; people said to me, "Dude, if you leave right now you'll have had the highest-winning career ever!" Of course, I wanted to go play in the expert division, and that's where things went bad; I finished dead last. I didn't play in many tournaments for two reasons. They took place on weekends and far away; after working on Scrabble all week, on weekends I wanted to chill out and do other stuff.


I was surprised to read that you think "the spiritual/emotional component is an absolute key to being a champion."

I learned that from Joe Edley, another Long Island guy. He taught me, don't be thinking about the game you just blew or who you're going to play next, try to be not only in the game but in the actual moment of time: Here's my rack right now, what's the best move I can make at this particular moment?

Of course, talk to any Scrabble tournament player, and they'll have an anecdote about the match they played in 1983. The late Scrabble champion Robert Felt seemed to remember every game in his career; I spent five hours on a plane with him once and I'm thinking, "Kill me now." He was in an accident that's become a Scrabble legend: the car is careening off the road and rolling over, everyone is trying to see if they still have a pulse, and Robert never misses a beat in the story he's telling about some tournament from 20 years ago.


So what comes after Scrabble for you?

I still play every day, mostly online or on my cellphone, but I play games in person when I can. I've written some television shows, mainly for Nickelodeon; I've sold two screenplays and have one under option. Next I'm probably going to rewrite a screenplay I had a lot of action on before, and then maybe another book of some kind. I don't want to write about Scrabble anymore, but I would love to continue trying to tell smart, funny stories.

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