By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
"My first big win was in May 2000," Ben recalls. "I was living in Israel and heard about an official National Scrabble Association tournament in Italy. Most of the players came from the U.S. I was unknown, and thanks to the recommendation of the head of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club, I was put in the top division as an unknown. I was the bottom seed, and my first game was against Robert Linn, the top seed, then a Top 100 player. I won that game, politely shook his hand, and did a postmortem on the game with him. I went into the lobby and gave out a huge roar and shook my fists, running around the lobby in victory. I then calmly went back into the room to start my next game."
Shuman says the following story, about a competition in 1999, is legendary among Scrabble geeks: "There was a tournament in Jerusalem where the top division got down to two players -- good old Ben Bloom and a woman whose name I don't recall. She was an angry woman. Eventually the game was decided by fifteen points or so, and Ben won. The woman was not gracious. She scowled and said to Ben, 'Boy, did you get lucky.' Ben twisted his neck, rolled his eyes, and flapped his arms, doing his best exaggeration of his condition, and said, 'Lady, does this look lucky to you?'"
Ben avoided pratfalls and jokes when he played Fatsis in 2002. He was deadly serious and wanted badly to beat the author he admired. "I don't remember any histrionics," Fatsis says. "And people in the Scrabble world have no mercy for that sort of thing anyway. Many players have all sorts of physical infirmities."
Ben's CP makes grasping and placing tiles difficult, but Fatsis said it was no different from playing G.I. Joel Sherman, whose constant burping and occasional emergency bathroom trips didn't prevent him from eventually winning the 2002 National Championship.
"Watching Ben play can be deceptive," says Shuman. "He takes the tiles in his hand one at a time and sort of clumsily sets them down. It's not pretty, but at the end of the game, he's won, as often as not."
Somehow, despite clumsy hands and an abundance of difficult letters, Ben cleared his rack first. "I remember he was pretty happy about it," Fatsis says.
"The Scrabble subculture is important to me," Ben says. "And I think Word Freak chronicled it beautifully, so it was cool to meet Stefan Fatsis. Then I played him. And I killed him. Fucking murdered him." Ben grins maniacally.
When Fatsis was informed that Ben referred to the match as a Scrabble slaughter, he checked his records and sent a slightly defensive e-mail to New Times: "Ben was able to 'go out' faster, and I was stuck with eleven points worth of letters on my rack (M, V, W). In tournament play, that total is doubled and awarded to the player who clears his rack first. The extra 22 points gave Ben the win. Hardly a homicide. But everyone loves beating the author."
By 2003 Ben had begun to gain notoriety in the highest ranks of the competitive Scrabble world. "In 2003 I was in an airport, and I saw ... Joel Sherman," Ben says. "For me that's a big deal. I'm not a shy person, so I just went up to him and said, 'Are you Joel Sherman?' And he said, 'Yeah. Are you Ben Bloom?' I was floored."
In 1999 something amazing happened to Ben: He became a millionaire thanks to the nine-year court battle and ensuing settlement from Manchester Hope Hospital. "The St. John's alumni paper did a story about the settlement, and some people came out of the woodwork," he says, refusing to elaborate. He will only say that "things are looking good" financially. He lives in a modest apartment on South Beach now, but he's already purchased a condo downtown, in one of the new luxury high-rises where units sell in the half-million-dollar range. "I'm moving in next year," he says. "I won't say how much I paid, but it's posh, very posh. I plan to live here for a while."
Ben didn't forego higher education while he nursed his Scrabble aspirations. He attended Oxford for a year, from 2000 to 2001, enrolling in a graduate program for Jewish studies. "I was the only fucking Jew," he says. "Do you believe that?" The program wasn't what Ben had hoped. "I just realized at some point that, when it comes to religion, it's just me and God," he explains, pointing a half-clenched fist skyward.
Ben left England for the University of Miami, enrolling in the MFA program for creative writing in 2002. "Why Miami? It's shallow," Ben says. "I like that. I can really shine in a city this shallow. Plus, I'd been here before for a Scrabble tournament, and I loved it." After his first year, he switched to poetry. "Poetry agrees with me," he says. "Poets have to be efficient with words, and so do I."
After graduating from UM in 2004, Ben realized that his plan was hardly foolproof. He's not a U.S. citizen, and to obtain a work visa, you need to find a job and prove only you can do it. That's a tough assignment for a guy with a BA in philosophy and an MFA in poetry. "It sounds very educated, but it's hardly marketable," he says.