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
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.
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.
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).
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."
What made Ben decide to file suit more than a decade after his bungled delivery? "I was pissed off and I had nothing to lose."
In addition to being uncommon, lawsuits in the British judicial system move very slowly. While awaiting a result, Ben discovered competitive Scrabble. He doesn't remember the first time he played, but he does recall always loving words and reading. By the age of eight he found a game that combined his passion for words with his competitive nature: "I would rush home from school in England from 1983 to 1989 to watch Countdown, a letters and numbers [TV game show] in which the aim was to find the longest word among nine random letters. It was my dream to be on that show."
But Ben didn't speak Hebrew when he moved to Israel. This led him to the two institutions that have helped define his life: St. John's College and competitive Scrabble.
"His mother tongue was English, so we sent him to an American high school," says Nili Bloom. "I think this saved his life, because the system in Manchester was quite different and quite cruel. He couldn't really express himself. At the American school, he got a lot of individual attention -- from day one he started to bloom and express himself." The school's small classes and academic concentration led Ben to begin reading up on colleges in America. Eventually St. John's caught his eye.
Ben says his four years at the college were a revelation. The curriculum is loosely based on the University of Chicago's Great Books program, in which professors and students eschew conventional textbooks. Instead they read, discuss, and write about the philosophical, mathematical, and scientific texts -- Plato, Newton, Hegel -- that constitute the Western canon. Ben took to it with an almost manic zeal (his intensity belies his claim that procrastination and laziness are his worst vices).
Ben cut a striking figure on campus. He was an extrovert among introverts, and he was always hustling someone for something.
"I remember him asking all the pretty girls to carry his lunch tray for him," says Ian Brennan, one of Ben's closest friends at St. John's. "He was perfectly capable of carrying it himself, but he's a tricky bastard. He used to ask me to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for him, because he said he couldn't hold the knife right. It was bullshit of course. It took me months before I realized he was messing with me."
I attended St. John's with Ben. I don't remember the first time we talked, but I recollect the first time I saw him. He was part of the small group that comes into the college during the second half of the freshman year, named "Febbies," after the month they appear on campus. Febbie convocation can be a raucous affair, with upperclassmen in attendance only to hoot at the more appealing coeds and laugh at the expense of the obvious goofballs.
That day students applauded loudly for an attractive young lady who sashayed across the stage to shake the dean's hand. When it was Ben's turn, he thrust himself onto the stage and strode purposefully, if unevenly, toward the podium. There was a smattering of polite applause. No one wanted to laugh or make fun of the cripple. Suddenly all the irreverence in the room was replaced with somber respect. Then Ben turned, smiled crazily, and waved. The uncomfortable bubble of propriety burst and people began to laugh.
More than once I saw Ben standing in the quad, amid the quiet would-be philosophers, shrieking about how he was the second coming of Christ.
"When we read the New Testament sophomore year, I actually felt strongly that it held some answers for me," Ben remembers. "I had often questioned my faith -- for obvious reasons. Actually, for a while I was a practicing Messianic Jew -- I said my prayers before every meal and everything. Then I realized it was bullshit. No offense to Christians or Jews or whoever, but I don't practice any religion anymore."
Brennan remembers Ben's brush with Messianic Judaism: "It wasn't always easy to tell when he was messing around, but I remember him calling himself the Messiah because he'd been born dead and brought back to life. He was pretty serious about Christianity for a while, but I'd like to think he didn't really believe he was the Messiah. I don't think the Messiah would try to cheat at cards the way Ben did. I mean, we'd all be sitting around the table, last round of bets, and Ben would blurt out, 'A full house is really good, right?' And he'd always complain if he didn't win. 'How can you take money from a cripple?'"
Ben didn't restrict his zeal to sedentary games. Despite the fact that one of his legs is shorter than the other, and running requires him to jerk his torso backward and forward like a Weeble toy, he constantly played soccer, basketball, croquet -- anything in which he could compete physically. I often saw him, shirtless and sweaty, running across campus. At every dance party, Ben occupied center stage, caroming off the walls like a racquetball.
"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.
"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.
It was Nili Bloom who first dragged her son to the North Miami store where shoes with a unique spring-heel design are sold. They're called Z-Coil. A reluctant Ben tried on a pair and says he's felt better since then. He was so enthusiastic he wrote a testimonial for the company's Website -- and eventually they offered him a job.
"Ben is ideally suited to tell, well, anyone really, but especially disabled people, about the benefits of our product," says David Dodge, the Z-Coil North Miami store manager. "So we hired him.... Ben is a natural ham, so he's able to get a lot of people to try on these crazy shoes with the springs in them."
It's another chance to perform -- and hustle -- for Ben. Just the other day, he was watching Court TV on the flat-screen in the Z-Coil store on Northeast 125th Street, when Dodge wandered into the back room.
"Hey, Ben!" the manager called. "Can you come back here a minute and help me with this?"
"But I'm only a poor crippled boy!" Ben yelled as he lurched out of his seat.
At 7:00 p.m., a battered compact car with a handicapped parking sticker hanging from the rear-view mirror pulls up in front of the Washington Avenue pool hall, Felt. Ben Bloom and I emerge and then enter a room that couldn't be more different from the one we used to frequent seven years ago in college. Mirrors line the walls, as opposed to cracked and broken drywall. And all of the cues have tips.
We get a pitcher of Budweiser and a table. We tell each other we don't play much anymore. "Don't expect much," I say.
"Happy New Year's," Ben says. "Cheers." We toast each other with plastic cups of brew and begin the game.
I rack the balls and Ben lets me break. The break is weak, nothing goes down, and the table is open.
"Oh, man, that was a really nice break," he says, a stiff left hand forming a peculiar bridge. He bends low over the table, one leg bent, the other straight, his right hand awkwardly grasping his cue. His stroke is slow and smooth, and the cue ball glides across the green felt and knocks the yellow nine ball into the pocket with a decisive thwock. The cue travels to the far corner, the perfect leave for a shot on the five ball.
"Oh, look at the lucky cripple!" he exults. I'm feeling some bad déjà vu.
Turns out pool is still Ben's game. He's also developing a passion for poker, which he indulges at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. When he goes there, he says, he plays out a scene he's perfected, in different forms, over the course of his life.
"When I come up to a poker table, people see me and think, Oh great, easy money," Ben says. "Every time I have good cards, I wait until the end of the game and then hold them out for everyone to look at. Then I ask, 'Is this good?' People get really mad when they realize that not only am I not stupid, but I might be smarter than them. Or they just grumble, 'Lucky cripple. I've been beaten by a retard.'"
That night at Felt I end up like many of Ben's other victims. The only ball I can sink is the cue ball. Ben sinks pretty much everything else. "Not bad for a poor cripple," he says.
"To hell with that; you're a rich cripple," I mutter. "And you know what else? You're not angry anymore."
Ben is puzzled, and I struggle to explain. "You used to be so pissed off all the time. I remember that night when you put a fist through the pool room window. You really used to take it to people all the time."
Ben doesn't respond. He calls his next shot instead: "Combo, three to the six. And I'm going to sink both of them." And he does.
I wonder aloud whether his continued exploration of religion has led to some sort of enlightenment.
"No, I'm just resigned to not having any answers," he says. Then he softly clicks the cue ball against the eight ball, which crawls across the felt expanse and disappears into the corner pocket.