But when Lund decided to head west for the Superstars, he did something daring. He invited them all to Vegas. Maybe it was the heart problems, or the fact that they'd never seen him play, or the fact that he's pushing 50. He can't say. But .something had changed; Reggie could feel it. Still, she knows she is a distant second to Scrabble. "It is absolutely the most important thing in his life—above people, above feelings, his job, above family," Reggie says. "It fills every gap in his life." And that is fine; she'll take that, because, "I think Scrabble's the thing that saved his mentality, his mind," she says. And as Reggie sat and watched him play—badly, with Lund finishing 34th—she saw something she hadn't seen since he left for the Marines 30 years ago: Richie, before the anger and fear. "When he was in kindergarten, he drew pictures of turtles, and he'd have this deep concentration, and I was looking at him and he still had that," she says. "I saw something familiar and it was almost like...things were good. There he was, sitting there, and all the heartache and stress and not being together...all that faded. It wasn't important anymore."
On the morning it all fell apart, G.I. Joel stood next to Nyman at the sinks in the men's room at Bally's. Both were washing their hands. Sherman turned to Nyman and said, by way of conversation, "Do you get a lot of mucus before the game begins?"
By the third day Sherman's quick start had gotten swallowed up by the leveling forces of luck, panic and the skill of current U.S. champion David Gibson. Sherman eventually bombed out his last seven games to finish 13th, but when he met with the superstudious Gibson during the stretch run of the tournament, he still had a chance. Gibson's record was 17-2, but Sherman, at 14-5, could position himself for first-place money with a win here. "I don't even want to go over there," John Williams said. "Sherman has this look on his face, and, frankly, it's frightening."
Sherman led midway, 162-149, but Gibson clawed out a 60-point lead on a 77-point bingo with "toenails." A few turns later, after drawing the second blank tile, Gibson laid down "mucoids." Sherman stared at the board. Finally he held up his hand and said, "Challenge." The tournament director came over with his dictionary. There was a long silence. "That's acceptable," he said.
"Congratulations," Sherman murmured in the tone of a man announcing a death. "You've won $50,000."
Gibson tried to wave this off, but it was true: By beating Sherman he was all but assured of the biggest prize in Scrabble history. "I have to be the unluckiest man alive," Sherman said later. "Everything that could go wrong for me, went wrong. And the funny part is, Gibson is one of the most modest guys around." How modest became apparent when Gibson, a math professor at Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College making less than $40,000 a year, earmarked part of his winnings for the elderly and doled out the rest, in individual checks accompanied by a nice note, to al competitors not finishing in the top 10.
Gibson, obviously, is not your usual pre player. At 44 he is a soft-spoken, unabashedly provincial mystic who clearly see: Scrabble less as a game than as a calling. "I was meant to be," Gibson says. "I always did poorly in the SAT verbal, but about 10 years ago a supernatural love for words came upon me. When you get changed, you can't help it. It's spiritual."
This is not a rare sentiment in Scrabble it is, in fact, something of a necessity to surrender yourself to the whim of the game Unlike chess, which is a distillation of learned strategy, success in Scrabble hinges on constantly shifting fate. You never know whether you'll get that precious blank or a fistful of garbage. The bag is god, the bag is chaos—and Scrabble is, in that narrow sense, quite like life; you can only work with the pieces you're given. That's why sc many top-level players burn out. "They get frustrated because they know so much but they can't reach the pinnacle," says Cree. "They get screwed by Lady Luck, and it's just too much to take."
But reaching the top doesn't guarantee peace cither. Edley, like Gibson, thought it kismet when he won his first U.S. championship in 1980, but the suspicion that he was nothing but a tool for fate left him depressed—"like a higher power was leading me, and I didn't have much to do with it," Edley says. He had always wanted to probe "the meaning of consciousness," but that title sent him off on other tangents: He flirted with New Age psychology, a fruit-only diet, a regimen of Chinese breathing exercises; after surviving these he decided in 1984 to live in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. "I wanted to deal with the last fear I had," says Edley. (He now lives, indoors, in Coram, N.Y.)
Always, he kept coming back to this frustrating game. In 1992, after winning his second national title, Edley began to understand why that was. "When you play Scrabble over time, you look at yourself in the mirror," he says. "You're changing, and it develops your mind. It's everything."