The 2004 Documentary: Word Wars

This was the official website for the 2004 documentary Word Wars focuses on four of the Scrabble's highest-ranked players as they advance from heated competition in neighborhood parks and clubs to highly organized regional and national tournaments, culminating in the 2002 National Championship in San Diego.
Content is from the site's 2004 -2005 archived content.

Word Wars - Official Trailer
Documentary that looks at the obsessive world of competitive Scrabble.

The classic board game, Scrabble, has been popular for decades. In addition, there are fanatics who devote heart and soul to this game to the expense of everything else. This film profiles a group of these enthusiasts as they converge for a Scrabble convention where the word game is almost a bloodsport. 

Tiles and tribulations…

There is a dedicated community of people for whom SCRABBLE is more than a domestic nicety – it is an obsession. They devote years of their lives to mental and physical preparation and travel the country – some full-time – competing in cutthroat tournaments. The dictionary is studied with religious devotion, each obscure word another weapon for the ultimate battle. For some, the game keeps them teetering on the safe side of sanity. For others, it has pushed them just over. Some scrape by on the meager winnings alone.

In another corner of the SCRABBLE universe - New York City’s Washington Square Park - you’ll find a ragtag bunch oblivious to anything besides the games at hand - restaurateurs, grizzled veterans, the seemingly homeless – all obsessing about words with a Q but no U: QAT, QAID, QINTAR... 

This is NOT your grandmother’s SCRABBLE

Word Wars delves into both of these worlds, focusing on four of the game’s highest-ranked players (also featured in Stefan Fatsis’ best-selling book Word Freak), as they advance from heated competition in neighborhood parks and clubs to highly organized regional and national tournaments, culminating in the 2002 National Championship in San Diego, where the top prize is $25,000 and an appearance on the Today Show.

The filmmakers weave various elements of the SCRABBLE subculture into the main story: Laela Kilbourn’s camera captures the industrial beauty of the HASBRO factory where sets are churned out like lemmings; Conor O’Neill’s editing builds the intensity of a best-of-50 $1,000 marathon, played to exhaustion by two main characters; Eye-catching graphics by Cassidy Curtis and Mike Hackett visually illustrate the mental gymnastics; Music by Thor Madsen of Wax Poetic (Norah Jones’ former backup band) adds an up-tempo groove to the game play and a haunting resonance to the darker moments.

You may not want to be these “word warriors” , but you will definitely be drawn into their journey. 

Joe Edley
The only three-time National Champion, going for his fourth. Revered by some, despised by others, he harnesses extreme concentration in order to "manifest the reality of winning". 
He achieves his results through a strict Tai Chi regimen and while National Champion in the early ‘80s actually lived under a bush in Golden Gate Park.

Matt Graham

An intense New York-based stand-up comic who inhabits a studio apartment filled with dictionaries, books about words and word lists. A huge assortment of “smart drugs” fuels his competitive drive and obsession with anagrams. Much of his income comes from pickup Scrabble games or anagramming for money.

Marlon Hill
A self-described ‘Pre-Mecca Malcolm playing SCRABBLE’, Marlon is a vocal Pan-Africanist from Baltimore. He makes a point to speak and write in full Ebonics, but has an almost supernatural ability to unscramble words of any length in the standard English dictionary. His battle with his own temper and his “best-of-enemies” relationship with Matt are central elements of the film.

“G.I.” Joel Sherman
The 1997 World Champ, whose epic gastro-intestinal issues have earned him his well-deserved nickname, Scrabble is G.I. Joel’s chance to transcend the physical hand life has dealt him



Eric Chaikin (Producer, Co-Director)
Chaikin is a producer, actor, and published authority in the field of “recreational linguistics” (wordplay) who appears as a character in the book Word Freak. Formerly a software executive at a major Wall Street technology firm, he is an expert tournament player himself, with first-hand knowledge of the characters, their lifestyles, rivalries, rituals, and reverence for the game. 
Director Statement
Fimmakers Profile - Sundance

Julian Petrillo (Co-Director)
Petrillo is an experienced film and TV director with a passion for games. He was First Assistant Director on such feature films as Boiler Room, American Buffalo, and the 2002 Sundance Audience Award winner Real Women Have Curves. He has directed for Comedy Central (Upright Citizens’ Brigade) and American Movie Classics (Remember WENN).
Fimmakers Profile - Sundance

Udy Epstein (Executive Producer, Seventh Art Releasing)
Epstein runs an independent production, distribution and foreign sales company noted for award-winning documentaries. Releases include six Academy Award ® -nominated films and the 1997 Oscar® winner The Long Way Home along with other notable films such as American Pimp, Radiohead: Meeting People is Easy, Better Living Through Circuitry and Ben Harper: Pleasure and Pain. Epstein executive produced Creature (with Sheila Nevins) and Rudyland for Cinemax/HBO. In post-production: No Excuses, about the 2002 U.S. Paraplegic Olympic ski team and "Missing, Presumed Dead" (about POWs in the Korean war).

Vivian Schiller (Executive Producer, Discovery Times Channel)
Vivian Schiller, general manager and senior vice president of Discovery Times Channel, manages all programming and operational aspects of the network. A 14-year veteran of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., Schiller most recently served as senior vice president, CNN Productions, leading the CNN Newsgroup¹s long-form programming efforts. Among her key accomplishments are the development and launch of two weekly series People in the News and CNN Presents -- which has received numerous awards, including a Peabody Award, two Alfred I. duPont Awards, a Polk Award and four Emmy Awards in 2002 alone.


History of Scrabble

• Alfred Mosher Butts, an out-of-work architect, invented SCRABBLE during the Great Depression in 1931.
• The game was originally named “Lexico,” but Butts eventually decided to call the game “Criss-Cross Words.”
• Butts studied the front page of The New York Times to calculate how often each of the 26 letters of the English    language was used.
• After figuring out the frequency of use, Butts assigned different point values to each letter and decided how many of    each letter would be included in the game.
• Butts decided to include only four S’s in the game, hoping to limit the use of plurals.
• The boards for the first “Criss-Cross Words” game were hand drawn with his architectural drafting equipment,    reproduced by blueprinting and pasted on folding checkerboards.
• The tiles were similarly hand-lettered, then glued to quarter-inch balsa and cut to match the squares on the board.
• Butts and his partner, game-loving entrepreneur James Brunot, refined the rules and design of the game, and    renamed it SCRABBLE. The name, which means “to grope frantically,” was trademarked in 1948.
• The first SCRABBLE “factory” was an abandoned schoolhouse in Dodgington, Connecticut, where Brunot and    friends turned out 12 games an hour.
• In the early 1950s, as legend has it, the president of Macy’s discovered the game on vacation, and ordered some    for his store. Within a year, everyone “had to have one,” and SCRABBLE sets were being rationed to stores around    the country.
• In 1952, SCRABBLE was licensed to Selchow and Righter Company, a well-known game manufacturer, to market    and distribute the game in the U.S. and Canada. In 1986, Coleco purchased Selchow and Righter, then in 1989    Coleco was purchased by Hasbro.
•The first SCRABBLE world championship was held in London in 1991.
• Over 100 million sets of SCRABBLE have been sold in 29 languages.

ABOUT Scrabble Competitions

• Today, the National SCRABBLE Association (NSA) represents 10,000 word game enthusiasts throughout the    United States and Canada.
• It sanctions more than 175 local SCRABBLE tournaments annually, hosts the National Scrabble Championship,   and organizes the School SCRABBLE Program.
• As Chaikin and Petrillo point out in Word Wars, the NSA is responsible for maintaining decorum during   championships, and has had to introduce rules outlawing bad manners, foul language and intimidation of other   players.
• According to the NSA tournament rules, each combatant in a two-player match is allotted 25 minutes to complete all   moves.
• Players are penalized 10 points for going overtime up to one minute, and an additional 10 points for every minute   after that (any word challenge takes place when the clock is neutralized).
• A win is determined when a player successfully plays all of his or her tiles, or when none remain to be drawn; or,   there are six successive scores of zero resulting from passes, exchanges or challenges.
Mind Sports Worldwide,
Scrabble is a registered trademark. All intellectual property rights in and to the game are owned in the USA and Canada by Hasbro Inc., and throughout the rest of the world by J.W. Spear and Sons, PLC of Enfield, Middlesex, England, a subsidiary of Mattel Inc.







Joe Edley
Matt Graham
Marlon Hill
Joel Sherman


Word Wars is a documentary about the trials of playing on the Scrabble tournament circuit. It follows four very different players on the road to the national tournament in San Diego, where the winner will win $25,000.


In the last few years, there have been successful documentaries about spelling bees, migrating birds, and alleged child molesters. The decision by directors Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo to take an in-depth look at a diverse group of people obsessed with words and letters and putting them together for fun and profit proves again that quality documentaries need not be just about politics.

At its most basic, the movie provides the general rules of Scrabble, as well as covering the origins and history of the game, including a controversy regarding offensive words found in the Official Scrabble Dictionary. The opening credits run over a factory line producing the games, and there’s even has an interview with the president of Scrabble manufacturer Hasbro, who seems genuinely amused with the players’ obsession. The movie also touches upon the contrast between the national tournament players and the rowdy crowd that gets together to play every weekend in New York’s Washington Square Park. The movie is surprisingly sophisticated, using impressive visuals to show the words on the scrabble board. The use of scrambled words and letters also helps to get the mindset of these dedicated players, who are the true stars of the movie.

Like the subjects of the documentary Cinemania, most of the players are a bit weird and scary in their dedicated obsession to the game. Most of the players seem like savants, living and breathing words and not taking care of important things like earning a living and personal hygiene. They spend hours studying words, and since many of them can’t hold down jobs, winning the tournaments is crucial to their continued livelihood.

You can’t help but watch with morbid fascination as the players take their obsession to insane heights, at times even making role game players seem cool. They take the tournaments very seriously, analyzing their games after the fact as onlookers giggle and smirk. And when the tournament is over for the day, they’re back in their hotel rooms—you guessed it—playing scrabble. As pathetic as they may seem, you can’t help but get sucked into their world as you root for them to achieve the validity they so desperately demand.

The four key players, who are followed from their preliminary tournaments through to the nationals, couldn’t be any more different:

First, you have Joe Edley, the #1 ranking scrabble player in the country and a family man who uses zen meditation to try to stay balanced during tournaments. Confident and full of himself, he conducts seminars and lectures on playing the game, but that doesn’t help him from getting beaten by a New York restaurant owner in an impromptu match in Washington Square Park. Edley is definitely the “heavy” or the “bad guy” of the movie, if only because he’s the one that the rest need to beat.

Next, you have Marlon, a tough pot-smoking African American from the hood, playing against stereotype and often facing ridicule for his choice of pastimes. His use of profanity would make him seem ignorant, if not for his knowledge of words and his high ranking, but he also proves to be the player with the most depth, spending his free time teaching the game at an inner city school.

His “pal” Matt Graham is another story. A very competitive player, Matt got into scrabble for the gambling and the money, using brain drugs to enhance his mental power. He’s close to broke most of the time, so when he goes through an entire regional tournament to win $875, you can almost feel his exuberance.

The final player, “GI Joel” Sherman, is a neurotic and chronically sick nerd who lives and breathes the game, because admittedly, he is unqualified to do anything else. (Joel was never in the army; the “GI” stands for “gastrointestinal” to describe his chronic health condition.)

The movie’s best moments show the strange symbiotic relationship between the latter three, whose “friendship” revolves around their passive/aggressive gameplay. Matt and Joel even face off in a best-of-50 marathon game for $1000, but Marlon puts it best when he says that he can’t figure out why he stays friends with Matt. (I won’t repeat the epithet he uses for him.) This relationship builds up to the well-documented national tournament, which builds to a dramatic climax with surprises that leave you with a definite sense of irony.

Word Wars might very well turn these three quirky guys into the strangest of pseudo-celebrities. (I still remember how excited I was the first time I saw one of the cinephiles from Cinemania at a local theatre.)

The Bottom Line:

In a decade that is producing some of the best documentaries of our times, Word Wars is a welcome and very unique addition to the ranks. Its clever look at four men’s obsession with a pastime that few might even find interesting before seeing the movie, makes it a more satisfying experience than last year’s Spellbound. A triple word score, for sure.

Word Wars opens in New York on Friday, June 11, 2004.


IMDb User Reviews

30 May 2004 | by todbrody1

I loved this movie. Though I confess to being somewhat of a word geek, I saw it with someone who has no relationship with the game whatsoever, and she too enjoyed it immensely. 

It's a fond, humorous look at a world that's much weirder than anyone, even aficionados, ever suspected. The people who rise to the top of this crowd are seriously disturbed people, and the movie, with its clever graphic commentary and often just letting the camera run on something, captures this beautifully. One of the most amusing scenes shows Hasbro executives as they recount the wars over dirty words in Scrabble. We were fascinated by this film, and we laughed a lot.

Word Wars
Tiles and Tribulations on the SCRABBLE Circuit 

Joe Edley
Matt Graham
Marlon Hill
Joel Sherman

Very special thanks to Stefan Fatsis, whose book
Word Freak
was a major source of inspiration for this film.

Executive Music Producer Daniel Wyatt
Associate Producer Joseph Rudge
Director of Photography Laela Kilbourn
Additional Camera Jay Hunter
Editor Conor O'Neill
Assistant Editor Richard Lowe
Titles & Graphic Design Hackett Creative
Motion Graphics Cassidy Curtis
Still Photographs Ann Sanfedele
Original Music Thor Madsen of Wax Poetic
Sound Editor/Designer Kenny Klimak
Post-Production AudioBarking Dog Sound
Color Correction P.J. Marsiglia
Legal ServicesNicole Page

Additional Crew

Camera Mary Streetman
Sound Mark Mandler
Graphics Jim Okumura
Production Assistance Andrew Chaikin
Marshall Robinson
Elizabeth Santoro
Caleb Smith

Special Thanks to
The tournament SCRABBLE community

Sherrie St. John
Howard Greenspan
Tom Brown
Gwen Bishop
Chris Cree
Sal Piro