Cree owns and runs a business selling forklifts wholesale in Dallas. Now 41, he has been one of the nation's top Scrabble players for years. But upstairs at the Showdown he hasn't played well the last couple of days; he has no shot at the $50,000. None of his blackjack luck travels. Pried loose from his cards, he arrives late for the first Scrabble match of the day and loses. At lunch he races to the baccarat pit and wins another $62,000. Then he comes back to the Scrabble board and loses more.
At week's end Cree leaves with more than $250,000 in his pocket, five times what the winning Scrabble player takes home. But when asked the obvious question—would he rather win at Scrabble or win a quarter of a million dollars gambling?—he doesn't hesitate. "Tournament," he says. "Glory. Glory. Glory. I want that glory."
G.I. Joel suffers. You cannot miss this. He twitches, his eyes bulge, he burps, he reaches for the bottle of Mylanta beneath his chair. There is not a hint of cool about Joel Sherman, no stoic hero act here. He will detail, blank-faced, his various maladies—allergies, asthma, hyperthyroidism—but all that is mere warmup for the real fiend: his enemy, his stomach. It is such a constant topic that fellow players slapped him with the nickname Gastro-Intestinal. G.I. Joel. Five years ago Sherman, now 33, toiled as a bank teller, but stress turned his gut into a boiling pool; he hasn't worked since. He plays the piano and would love to sing on stage. It's impossible. "My sinuses tend to drain when I sing," Sherman says. "So I'll sing one song, and then I have to blow my nose."
But Joel Sherman does one thing in this world better than all but about a dozen people. He can, like every one of the Scrabble masters arrayed at 27 tables in the casino ballroom this morning, glance at the name Las Vegas and instantly scramble its letters into "salvages," transmute "drainage" into "gardenia" and, in the interest of put-upon writers everywhere, take "editors" and recast it as "steroid." He can tolerate spending four hours a day memorizing word lists, thumbing through The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. He can land triple triples—an extraordinary play, hitting two triple-word squares and piling up enormous numbers of points in a single move—so quickly it leaves his adversaries gasping; he can see extensions (turning a word like "city" into "electricity") more creatively than anyone alive. He can reach into the bag and pull out a seven-tile combination like E, I, I, N, R, S and a blank (which can be used as any letter), and instantly know he has hit the jackpot: There are 11 different bingos (plays burning all seven tiles and earning a 50-point bonus) that you can build out of that combo. "Ironies" is only the most obvious.
A Scrabble tournament is the quietest sporting event this side of chess, with just the furious rattle of tiles, the scratch of pencils, the occasional "Challenge" rising softly into the air. It is a game demanding instant recall of some 100,000 obscure, common, gorgeous or ridiculous words—130,000 when, during the world championships, the British list is included—which explains why the executive director of the National Scrabble Association, John D. Williams Jr., is only half joking when he says; he fully expects someone's head to explode during a tournament someday.
Though there are many fine female players—Rita Norr, in fact, won the nationals in 1987—a consistent and crushing majority of the Top 20 are men. No one can say why. Scrabble makes winners of those who can compartmentalize their thinking while shutting out panic and worldly worry, which may be why it attracts its share of one-track geniuses who can barely hold a conversation. "Talking to him is like talking to a Martian," one intermediate player says of an expert. "But get him in front of a Scrabble board...then they all come alive. Then they become giants."
G.I. Joel is perhaps the most intense member of that subculture of Scrabble fiends who study, obsess and talk the game, play daily, argue strategy over the Internet—and shrug as the rest of their lives wither. Top players include lawyers, stockbrokers, teachers; but that's only because they have no choice. If he could, "I'd give up my job," says England's Mark Nyman, the '93 world champion who, at 29, would seem to have a dream career as a TV producer. "I'd just travel around the world looking at the dictionary."
Sherman doesn't even bother with pretense. He lives off an inheritance, so he's free to serve as archetype for those Scrabble grinds whose bright-eyed absorption is all-consuming—people like Bob Lipton, who memorized words 12 hours a day for months to prepare for November's world championship; or Robert Felt, who was so occupied with bemoaning his Scrabble luck that he never noticed when the car in which he was riding was rear-ended by a bus; or Alan Frank, who once kicked a woman he had played against in the stomach. In 1980 John Turner, who would finish sixth in the nationals, became so frustrated with his inability to place a Q that he ate it. "I can compare it to the cast of Twin Peaks: There's a large percentage of weirdos," Nyman says. "Of course, I'd like to think I'm one of the normal ones." It's no accident that whenever Alfred Butts is mentioned, Scrabble players emphasize that he was an unemployed architect; who needs work with a game like this?
Once at his home Sherman was in the next room while two others played. One Picked up the bag filled with two dozen pieces and shook it. "There's a defective tile in there," Sherman called out. There was; he had heard the paper label Happing. In August '94 the pressure of the U.S. nationals proved too much for Sherman; when he realized he couldn't win, he bolted from his table and ran out to sulk in the parking lot. But a world without Scrabble, he declares, would be "pretty much unbearable, I'd say."
Now, a year later, Sherman teeters on top of the mountain. A good, casual Scrabble player can expect to score 250 to 350 points a game but would be as lost here as a country-club champ at the Masters; top-rated players regularly score close to 400 points against the stiffesi competition. But by the second day of the Showdown, Sherman has risen to an even higher level, winning his first nine games, averaging 455 points and threatening a runaway. "It's my whole life," he says. "Basically I've been an underachiever in everything I've tried: Schoolwork. Work. Social life. Winning this would validate my existence."