By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
"Ben loved sports, and I loved that about Ben," says Brennan, now an aide to New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey. "He couldn't run as fast as everyone else, so he'd stand under the basket, screaming for an outlet pass. And I'll tell you something -- if he could catch the pass, he'd score. One time we were playing flag football. It was the end of the game, we were behind, and we were twenty yards from the end zone with one down left to score.
"We told Ben to get to the end zone -- which was the first time we'd ever done that. No one covered him, and he hustled down there and caught the frigging pass. Unbelievable. I think that may be the happiest I've ever seen him."
Ben misses St. John's but admits he was an angrier person then, wrestling with his rage at a disorder that made every task difficult. He'd found a place where words reigned supreme, and although his labored speech made it difficult to inject his opinions into the fast-paced debates that characterize the classrooms at St. John's, Ben said his CP could also be an advantage. "When I could actually wedge myself into the conversation, people really had to listen hard because I speak very slowly, and I'm not easy to understand," he says.
Ben hurls puns and bons mots like water balloons so that they splatter ungracefully in conversation. Then he looks demurely at the floor. If you laugh, he laughs with you, but if you pity him (and Ben's pity detector is hypersensitive) or try to pretend you understand him when you don't, he remains straight-faced, looking you directly in the eye. "That's how I find my friends," he says. Ben knows he can interact with people who joke about his disorder. "I become friends forever with [those people]," he says. "People who shy away from me -- those people can fuck off."
Because he's a wit whose words come so easily to his mind yet so painfully to his lips, he is often angry.
"It's very easy to become angry with God or angry with a person," Ben says. "I used to be very angry, very often." And this is what drives much of his humor: Ben Bloom doesn't necessarily want you to laugh with him; sometimes he wants to laugh at you. Just ask any college pool room opponent.
In 2002 Ben took on Fatsis, a strong competitive Scrabble scrapper, at the National Scrabble Championships in San Diego. They faced each other across a game board, the arching ceilings of the aging San Diego Concourse overhead, worn orange carpet underfoot. Ben was uncharacteristically somber that August day.
The game began slowly, both competitors playing conservatively. Then Fatsis scored some bingos -- a Scrabble term for using all of your letters, which earns you 50 extra points. He set down the tiles for RESIDUA, then CANONIST. "I never thought I would lose, but then again, I never think that under any circumstances," Ben says. "But it was starting to get a little dicey."
Luck and skill conspired in Ben's favor -- he scored a bingo (DILUTES). But then he began drawing difficult letters: the J, the X. Then the dreaded Q and Z. Fatsis cleared his rack with DIASPORA. "I thought I was doing pretty well," Fatsis says.
The match against Fatsis took place twelve years into Ben's Scrabble fetish. Until he moved to Israel, Ben was what competitive Scrabblers condescendingly call "a living room player."
"I moved to Israel in 1990, and I didn't speak Hebrew," Ben says. "I saw an ad in the Jerusalem Post for a Scrabble club. I thought it would be a way to do something fun and meet people who spoke English." Ben had already learned that most strangers at first assumed he was mentally disabled. This gave him an advantage. "I thought I was pretty smart -- still do," he says. "So I thought I'd beat all these geezers in the Scrabble club."
Of course, that's not what happened. "I got killed," he recalls with a smile. "It was all geezers, mostly, though they were very nice. But that made it harder to take the loss. I fucking hate losing."
He returned to the Scrabble club and kept returning until he won. In 1993 he left Israel for America and St. John's, where his Scrabble fervor languished while he attempted to absorb Thucydides and Descartes.
But when he returned to Israel after graduating in 1997, he went back to playing the game with a vengeance. He lived in Tel Aviv with his mother, who by then was administrating an Israeli-based philanthropic fund for the Arison family, the Miami-based magnates who own Carnival Cruise Lines and the Miami Heat, among other ventures. "I was so fucking lazy, all I did was play Scrabble," Ben says.
Shuman first played Ben in 2000. "When we sat down for our first game, Ben looked at me and said, 'Gaaaah, I'm just a crippled boy,'" Shuman says. "He's trying to be disingenuous, and he's trying to get an edge."
Ben began to win more and more, rising through the Scrabble ranks.