Scrabbled

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

At first it wasn't a success. The idea was rejected by toy companies for years, so Butts set about manufacturing and selling sets himself. By 1938 he had retooled the game and included a gridded board similar to the one now included in all Scrabble sets. He called it Criss-Cross Words, and in 1947 sold the rights to a Connecticut man named James Brunot, who changed the name and added a few twists (such as the 50-point bonus for using all seven tiles). Brunot renamed it Scrabble, presumably for the manner in which players grope through the bag of tiles, and began selling sets in 1949.

By 1953 Brunot's Scrabble business was booming. The game was sold to a succession of companies -- Selchow & Righter, Coleco, and finally Hasbro.

Along the way to becoming one of Hasbro's most popular products, Scrabble attracted a devoted following -- not only casual players but also hard-core fans who traveled to tournaments, played anagram games to exercise their brains, and memorized rare words that incorporate Zs and Qs (worth ten points apiece).

Jonathan Postal
Jonathan Postal

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It has become a thriving subculture. Bruce Shuman, a 64-year-old retired library sciences professor from Queens University, began playing competitive Scrabble about nine years ago and is now the eighth-ranked player in North Carolina, according to the National Scrabble Association. The retiree met Ben about five years ago. Ben, though, is hardly the strangest person Shuman has met in the Scrabble world. "There are plenty of us who are just normal, professional people who love words," Shuman says. "Then there are also plenty of people who I can only describe as, hmmm ... interesting."

Back in 2001, Wall Street Journal reporter and author Stefan Fatsis found the world of competitive Scrabble engaging enough to write a book about it. The result, Word Freak, describes world champions like manic dietary supplement and caffeine addict Matt Graham, and chronic worrier Joel Sherman, an unemployed and sickly man who plays Scrabble full-time and is nicknamed "G.I. Joel" by the other players for his constant (and distracting) gastrointestinal -- read belching -- issues.

Whatever their eccentricities, competitive Scrabble players are generally more intellectual than, say, competitive eaters.

"These are lawyers, doctors, grad students, kids, and old people," Ben says. "We have nothing in common except a love of words. These are people who have arguments over anagrams ... people who do flash cards for four or five hours a week to become good players. "

Ben says he's going to win the National Championship and the $25,000 prize that comes with it. "But I don't play for the money," he's careful to point out. "I love the game. Best game in the world. Except soccer."


Ben Bloom spent ten months in his mother's womb. She was in labor for 36 hours, and Ben was born without a heartbeat April 24, 1975. Although doctors at Manchester's Hope Hospital eventually revived him, they told his mother he would likely be a vegetable if he managed to live through the first week.

"He is a miracle, my miracle," says Ben's mother, 59-year-old Nili Bloom, who was born in Tel Aviv. "It's a miracle that he's alive at all, and that he's brilliant and able to do so many things.... Well, any mother says these things, but I think most people would agree that my Ben is special."

Cerebral palsy is a term used to describe motor impairment resulting from brain damage at or before birth, regardless of the cause or effect. It was clear from the outset that Ben was afflicted with it. "CP can mean a lot of things," Ben says. "Basically it makes moving difficult; it affects your muscles."

His mental acuity was unclear until he was about fifteen months old, according to his mother. "He couldn't speak yet -- he didn't start talking until he was three," Nili Bloom reminisces in Israeli-accented English. "But we used to take him to the same babysitter every morning. After about the first week, he started gesturing with his little arms, pointing out the streets we had to turn on before we even got to them. He was an amazing child. When he finally started talking, his first set of words was to count from one to ten."

Ben's parents divorced when he was five, and he lived with his father, Barry, who owns a textile company in Manchester, while his mother left town and took a succession of jobs, including a long stint as an El Al flight attendant.

Ben describes his father as a "lovely man who is also a pain in the ass." By the time he was fifteen, Ben tired of Manchester's gray skies and his deteriorating relationships with his father and the British school system. In 1990 he moved to Israel to live with his mom.

Nili Bloom and her son had long believed that the staff at the hospital where Ben was born had made mistakes that resulted in his CP. So they sued the hospital in 1990, alleging malpractice. "I can't talk about much of it, but I can say the court case was very difficult and long," Ben says. "Lawsuits against doctors and hospitals -- actually all lawsuits -- aren't as common in England as the States. Plus, all the records of my birth had been conveniently misplaced by the hospital."

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