A down night at the Comic Strip in Manhattan. Matt Graham has had his good moments: He's a pro. He has worked comedy clubs for a decade, and three times he sailed through five minutes on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. But tonight he's slowly dying. Tonight he commits the sin from which he'll never recover: Unrolling a perfectly disgusting, hilarious riff on Southern strip bars, Graham begins talking about a particular Latinate term for female genitalia...and suddenly gets lost.
Instead of plowing on, he stops and, to himself, begins wondering out loud whether that is singular...or plural...or both? The crowd turns him off—what is he talking about?—and Graham hurries to explain. "Tortured by words," he says into the microphone. "Caught in the web of words...that's me."
That's him. Graham, you see, could well be the next Seinfeld or Phil Hartman, except that for too long he was possessed by the thought of being the "John McEnroe of Scrabble." And for a time, he was. With his schedule full of down time and delays, Graham had the hours needed to study word lists and lo play. His knack for pulling off splashy plays in the tightest spots made Graham's name, and by the time of the Superstars last August he had reached expert status—and No. 6 in the Scrabble association computer ranking—after only five years in the game.
But Vegas proved a disaster. Graham spent too much money he didn't have getting there and then finished in what he considers an unthinkable 38th place. His only consolation was handing Gibson one of his three losses, but that wasn't enough, and he is ready to give up the game altogether. "Gibson is what did it to me," Graham says months later. "I mean, his 21-3 record was unbelievable. And he's also this gentleman; he set the mark in both performance and class, and that's seldom done."
Too, Graham may just be discovering that, oddly enough, Scrabble is the wrong game to play if you're enamored of words. For at this level, Scrabble's dirty little secret is that it is a word game in which words mean nothing. The dabbler comes to the board thinking definitions and word knowledge, and he gets swallowed up in showing that off; but the experts care for words only for their point value. The newest Scrabble dictionary expurgated some 100 offensive terms, but they're all usable—no, welcomed—in tournaments. Black players don't flinch when they see "nigger" or "darky"; women congratulate any smart play of sexual slang; and Joel Sherman, who is Jewish, didn't blink when Gibson opened their second game with "yid," because no one cares. "They're nothing but scoring tools," Sherman says. "One of my opponents used [a synonym for sexual intercourse] at the end of the game. He got 26 points. It was the right thing to do." Understanding English isn't even necessary; a group of top Thai players do quite well at major North American tournaments, and they barely speak the language. "It started out as knowledge of words, but now it's become something...different," says Jimmy Young, a 30-year player and one of the pillars of the Washington Square Park game. "Now I could play a guy who's a mongoloid idiot, but he can compete because he just memorizes lists."
Gibson, naturally, is the apotheosis of '90s Scrabble, a math expert who spends as much as seven hours a day poring over interminable columns of words, caring less about what they mean than that they are "acceptable." Graham, for one, isn't sure he can last long in this world without going numb.
"Too much is needed to play at the level I want to play. It's too consuming," he says. "I felt like I had no life. For now I've made the choice, and it's comedy."
For a moment Graham goes quiet. After all, what else is there to say? Except that he can't shake loose of the web just yet; screwed by Lady Luck, haunted by Gibson, the comedian jerks up his head. "How can he be that good?" Graham says, voice rising. "He's not curing cancer. What did he do?"
An October Sunday in Washington Square. A blue-sky clarity washes the air, blessing the kibitzers and clowns and dopers and geniuses who hover over games that go on and on. The all-day Scrabble game is split now: A lone board—Mathew the poet and Forrest, who speaks a dozen languages and falls asleep anytime—running among the speed-chess boys, and two more here at the picnic benches where Aldo smokes his endless cigarette, and Richie Lund, dressed in the usual black and gold, calmly steamrollers all comers for a penny a point.
"The game is it for them," Betty Aberlin says of the parkies. "Everything else, including rain, is just a distraction. I think of them as the Lost Boys."