Scrabbled

He's a genius, fluent in three languages, and he hustles pool. So why do they call him "cripple"?

Ben Bloom's anger was uncontrollable. It forced its way up from his chest and through his knotted vocal cords and clenched teeth. "Don't fucking talk to me that way -- I AM THE MESSIAH! I was resurrected, and now I walk the Earth!" he would shout.

Back in the Nineties, when he was a student at St. John's College in Maryland, many of Ben's outbursts were intended to shock, often for the purpose of verbally smacking someone whom he believed had slighted him.

But more often the angry words were part of a strategy. Ben's favorite game was pool. He played in a dingy room in the basement of a 160-year-old dorm. His favorite tactic was to sucker strangers into matches. Sometimes he would take their money; often he settled for their pride.

Jonathan Postal
Ben Bloom's cerebral palsy might slow him down, but 
it doesn't stop him from playing soccer, Ping-Pong, or 
even flag football. He has an unusually high degree of 
fine motor control for someone with his condition, 
which explains how he recently whipped the author's 
ass at a game of pool
Jonathan Postal
Ben Bloom's cerebral palsy might slow him down, but it doesn't stop him from playing soccer, Ping-Pong, or even flag football. He has an unusually high degree of fine motor control for someone with his condition, which explains how he recently whipped the author's ass at a game of pool

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It was difficult for Ben to find new opponents -- the tiny school has about only 400 students, most of whom were familiar with Ben's unruly brown mane of hair, angular face, and lurching gait.

Ben's most memorable pool room performance took place in 1997. He was drinking Mad Dog 20/20 that night, lolling on a couch in his regular uniform -- T-shirt, khakis, sandals. Four or five of his classmates stood by as the the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" poured from the stereo. Ben was lit, and his unintelligible diatribe threatened to eclipse the music.

Sometime long after midnight, an alcohol-inspired gleam shown in Ben's upperclassman eye when he spotted a baby-face freshman with a pageboy haircut choking down whiskey and trying to make small talk. After a few minutes, the table opened and Ben lunged for a cue. "Hey," he yelled, glaring at the kid. "Play me."

"I don't know. I don't really feel much like playing," said the freshman, looking around the room for reassurance or help.

No one responded.

Then a wail tore loose from Ben's chest. "Whyyyyyyy oh why won't you play a poor cripple?" he moaned. Ben, you see, didn't receive enough oxygen during his birth and consequently suffers from cerebral palsy. He is difficult to understand and speaks very slowly. His limbs are twisted -- his movements are clumsy and sometimes require massive concentration. But his brain is nimble. He says that his IQ, which was tested many years ago, is around 135, which places him in the top five percent. He also has an aptitude for languages; he speaks, reads, and writes fluent English, Hebrew, and French. According to his mother, Nili Bloom, Ben taught himself Hebrew using the sports section of the Jerusalem Post and a Hebrew/English dictionary. ("His entire vocabulary that first year was made up of sports terms," she says.)

That night by the pool table, he shuffled up to the freshman and brought his hands together in supplication. "Only one game for the poor cripple."

The kid acquiesced. Ben played a moderately successful game, which the freshman praised. "Man, that was a good shot," the youngster remarked after a crafty bank shot.

"For a cripple," Ben replied.

The kid blushed. Ben lost.

"One more, one more, oh please, one more," Ben begged.

"Sure. Fine." The boy didn't even protest when Ben slammed a ten-dollar bill on the table.

The freshman still had five balls sitting on the table when Ben sank the eight, took his money, slumped back down into the dingy sofa, and picked up the neon blue Mad Dog.

When the door closed behind the humiliated freshman, Ben looked up, stared solemnly for a moment, and then howled maniacally through crooked lips. Later that night he would smash his hand through a window pane in the pool room door in a blackout rage, after which several friends helped him back to his dorm room.

Things are different seven years later, now that Ben is a millionaire, thanks to a settlement from the Manchester, England hospital that botched his birth. No longer a lowly philosophy major hustling freshmen for ten bucks at the pool table, he's a businessman with investments in Miami real estate and a job as a liaison to the disabled for Z-Coil, a specialty shoe company.

Now, after earning an MFA in poetry from the University of Miami, where he was known for baiting students into Ping-Pong games he rarely lost, Ben hustles card players at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. "I don't play high-stakes, but I can afford to play cards all night," he admits, his face breaking into an enormous grin under squinting brown eyes.

But Ben's highest aspiration involves a game that is difficult to hustle, one in which his cerebral nature and love of words collide with his contentious nature: Scrabble.


Scrabble -- a game that has been purchased by more than 100 million households since its inception and is played in nearly a dozen languages -- was invented in 1933 by an unemployed architect named Alfred Butts. The inventor was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Gold Bug," in which a code contains clues to the location of a hidden treasure. For months Butts combed through reams of newspapers and magazines, graphing the frequency that letters were used. Then he constructed the familiar wooden tiles and assigned them point values. He called the resulting game, which could be played on any flat surface, Lexiko.

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