The "G.I." Joel Sherman Interview

Today is the day to change your socks.

Dear Mrs. is my mom and advice columnist. She'll help you with anything you want. Anything that's not nasty. Send her an email.

This is the second time this has happened: I talk about somebody on my website, it gets picked up by Gawker, and then that person emails me, later agreeing to do an interview with me. Clearly this means that eventually I will be interviewing Paris Hilton on this space one day because I talk about her like she's my best friend (wishful thinking.)

I first heard about today's interviewee last weekend while watching the documentary "Word Wars". A professional Scrabble® player, in the movie he won $25,000 at the 2002 National Championships. In the film, he's distinctive for his personal style, his gastrointestinal issues and his great rendition of "Across the Universe." Oh, also, at one point a friend of his tries to get him a hooker and he declines.

The "G.I." Joel Sherman Interview: Less Than Twenty Questions

Do you like any games other than Scrabble®?
Anagrams, strip bowling.

What are your favorite words, not just as good Scrabble® words but just in general?
Never really gave it much thought, but there are concepts that I am devoted to: harmony, constitution, logic, reason, proof, thought, freewill, tolerance, non-violence, fair share.

Were you happy with the documentary "Word Wars"?
I was very happy with "Word Wars." It was a faithful rendering of us all, yet remained lively, fun and upbeat . And it got me the opportunity for an expense-paid visit to Sundance which I probably would never have done in my life on my own dime, though not for lack of interest.

Are you pals with the guys from the movie or have things changed since then?
My relationships with the other protagonists and the producer have not changed at all, other than the addition of profound respect and admiration for Eric Chaikin's talent.

How is your stomach feeling right now?
My stomach hasn't really been a big problem for several years now. I achieved that by forcibly weaning myself from prescription strength antacids -- I never really found
one that offered complete relief in the first place, and the rebound effect is a killer when you're on them and miss a dose, or have to stop for a brief period. I decided
taking them was actually making the condition worse instead of better, so I just stopped. Now I take o-t-c liquid antacids occasionally, but probably no more frequently than the average person without chronic GI problems. My sinus allergies and asthma are more bothersome than anything else since that.

What's the worst example of bad sportsmanship you've seen in Scrabble®?
I can't really say I've seen any though I've heard some amusing stories, and some cantankerous argufying from across a room. Some who saw "Word Wars" might expect me to say it was Marlon Hill taking a walkabout in the middle of a crucial game with me at 2002 National Championship, but it would be unfair to single that out without noting that I had done exactly the same thing once myself, at the 1994 National Championship in Los Angeles; and my exit may have been louder than Marlon's because I was in such a hurry, I inadvertently tipped over my chair and by the time I was a good 20 feet away from it, it hit the floor with
a metallic clatter. I returned to the board five minutes later and finished the game, just as Marlon did, even though the film neglected to show that part.

Do you like the aesthetic elements of Scrabble®, like the sound of the tiles in the bag and the feel of them, or does that go away when you play 10 times a day?
I think the aesthetic elements are represented by the plays on the board, and sometimes by what the naked eye cannot perceive, the reasoning behind the plays. I never really
noticed or developed any attachment to the more sensory things you mentioned. I also play many more games on the computer these days than face to face, so those are often
not even present.

What songs have you been playing on the piano lately?
I actually haven't played much lately, but my pretournament standards are "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story," the Beatles' "Acrossthe Universe" and Billy Joel's "Shades of Grey." After that, whatever Billy Joel, Beatles or Abba happens to pop into my head at the moment; I'm also trying to learn a little bit of ELO and Chicago's (the band, not the show which did not impress me, except for some of the costuming) greatest hits. I did a guest appearance with a great cabaret act, Gashole (Karen Mack and Michael Holland, a must-see if you come to NYC), a few months ago in which we performed Earth Wind & Fire's "Fantasy."

After Wordfreak, maybe we’ll see a lot more books focusing on people who are obsessed over what others consider a novelty or game or leisure activity. What would you like to see one done on? People who are crazy about crossword puzzles? Miniature golf?
I'd like to think that would serve no purpose as "Word Freak" was the definitive opus of the genre, is unlikely to be improved upon by changing the activity, and attempts to do so would look like lame imitations. But I suspect a book
about that skinny little Japanese guy and his friends in the hotdog-eating contests would be gobbled up. (Sorry, I couldn't resist one silly pun.)

What do you think you would have done for a living if you didn’t play Scrabble®?
Cannibalistic serial killer. There's a certain economy of design to having an occupation that actually consists of putting food on your table, and I've always identified with Dr. Lecter's keen sense of justice and epicurean prowess, though I don't necessarily have the patience to make a good reduction or marinade and expertise to follow a complex recipe.

Did you know that you are listed alongside Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax on this website of Jewish American sports figures? How does it feel?
I must admit I did not know that. And holy shit, Lyle Alzado is Jewish?! It would be bragging to say I'm alongside those great athletes when I'm clearly listed in a separate category among a handful of others *most* people still have *not*
heard of. Several other North American Scrabble® Champs have been Jewish and they're not listed, presumably because the Wikipedia contributor who compiled that list found my Jewishness mentioned in "Word Freak" and the same info is not readily available about them. I won't "out" them because I don't know how they would feel to share that listing as well. My own feeling is ambivalent: it's nice to be noted, but I'd rather my born religion was not the criterion for my inclusion, as I have been an atheist since even before my Bar Mitzvah, and have militant aversions to all religion/hypocrisy/mind control. I was happier to appear in the New York Times'
yearend list of all sports champions in 2002 even tho the print was much smaller.

Are you Jewish, Claire? If yes, do you like people to know it? Do you take pride in it? Stereotypes actually derive from things that *are* true about a noticeable percentage of the people marked with them, both negative and positive things, whether we like them or consider them fair or acceptable to mention or not. What I learned growing up as a Jew was that despite our history of being persecuted, and our genetic predisposition to excel at liberal arts and sciences, many of us were/are just as condescending and prejudiced and intolerant as our tormentors. I decided I couldn't be proud of that, and the rituals were just silly-looking contrived bullshit with no valuable purpose. So I say notice me for my skills, not the yarmulke I stopped wearing 30 years ago.

No, I am not Jewish although my friend Margalit in high school deemed me a HMOT (Honorary Member of the Tribe.) Would you play on Yom Kippur?
I would not only play on it, I will direct a meeting of my club on it next week. And I will feel no obligation to atone to anyone or anything for doing so. We even played on Yom Kippur when I was a little kid and still expected by my parents to observe the fast. We just didn't write down the scores, we used innovative non-written scoring methods such as bookmarking the appropriately numbered page in a large book. It was pretty much all we could do that day without using "modern conveniences" given that we really weren't the types that spent all day in synagogue and prayer.

If you were to play a casual player, or a kid, would you take it easy on them or go all the way?
I take it easy on no one. Why should I assume that kid isn't as good as I was when I was a kid? (I've been scoring 400 a game since I was 10 years old.) One of our National Champions, Adam Logan, had a top twenty finish in an earlier National Championship when he was 15 and won it at 21; and the current World Champion, Panupol Sujjayakorn of Thailand, was 19 when he won. I have too much pride to risk losing to an "unproven" opponent, and there's enough luck in the game that I don't necessarily have to take it easy on one to lose.

Is the way “Word Wars” illustrated anagrams pretty much how it happens in your head? Do you think it’s like that for most players or it depends person to person?

The "floating tiles falling into their place" is pretty much how it happens for me. I honestly can't say with any confidence how many others share that experience with me. My study is generally haphazard and unscheduled, and my mind is prone to "bolt-of-lightning inspiration" word finding, especially when my study is fresh and I'm in practice, while others with more systematized study methods may recall words simply by brute force churning of tile orders (permutations) or even associating the alphabetized rack with the word it contains as if the alphagram was a word itself.

What’s the strangest playing or studying strategy you’ve ever heard of?
Well, there's this one guy who won the New York City Championship in the late 1970's but short-circuited after losing one too many big leads in the early 80's, and he's been trying to keep every board tight (cut off opportunities
for opponents to play all 7 tiles at once for the 50-point bonus, known as a "bingo") for the last 20 years, insisting someday he'll perfect this method so that it can win tournaments. But in his attempts to do this, he never scores
any points, and spends no thought on managing his racks into opportunities to do so, so he's lucky to ever win a game now, and his ranking has plummeted to the bottom of intermediate strength divisions, and is approaching the top of novice divisions soon, because it simply is not possible to beat a skilled opponent with this method. You have to score points to win.

How does it feel to be the 131st person interviewed for
"It's a strange magic..." -- ELO

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