2004_09_joelsherman.jpgSubway or Taxi?

Subway! I’m cheap and hate traffic, it's the most efficient way to get around the city, except from the Bronx to Queens and Brooklyn, and it’s sounder environmentally.

J tile or Z tile?
Z, makes more bingos.

Mets or Yankees?
I’m really only a part-time follower, have despised Steinbrenner since the 70's, because it took him forever to bring quality pitchers in among his constant avalanche of megabuck free agent acquisitions. Loved the Mets in their heyday from the "Miracle" thru Gooden/Darling/Cone/Orosco days, but have been in mourning since they broke up Dykstra/Backman of offense and fielding and utter disgust since they let the two dumbest managers in history, Davey Johnson and Bobby Valentine give away several almost certain championships with horrendous strategic patterns and individual blunders (Kenny Rogers?!? BV let a Steinbrenner failure pitch to Steinbrenner’s pro hit-men? Get real!!). I'll only admit to being a Yankee fan to the extent that I enjoy seeing any team play well as a team, where each individual has a role he knows, and all make valuable contributions within the framework of those roles; but if I have to choose just one, I'm afraid I have to go with the Jersey Devils!

Joel, tell the Gothamist audience how we met.
We met at one of the National Scrabble® Championships where you were working as an intern for your parents that run the National Scrabble® Association. You were counting tiles and managing players as I recall.

Where did you grow up? Were you always into Scrabble®? Were you considered a nerd in high school?
I grew up in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, where I still live. I was considered a nerd in elementary school (P.S. 89), but by the time I got to Bronx High School of Science, I had become more of a ne'er-do-well. My teachers there really deserved more effort than I put out for them, but I was a quick study and a strong test taker.

You are considered one of the best Scrabble® players in New York. How did you first get into the game, and at what point did Scrabble® become a huge part of your life instead of just a game for you?
It was a huge part of my life since childhood, not that I ever dreamed then that it could be someday bring me "fame and fortune." My mother gave me "Scrabble® for Juniors" just before I was six, and I found it babyish, grew bored with it quickly; but watching my parents and older brother play the adult version, I decided that was interesting, and I began to play with them. I wasn’t consciously training to be a future champion as an adolescent; I just loved to play, and so did my mother, so we played hundreds of games a year until her death when I was 25.

You play in World Championships held all over the world. You also play in National Championships held all over the US. When was the last time either of them was held in New York and how did you do?
One of each has occurred in New York City and I played in both. The Nationals was held at the Pennsylvania Hotel across from Madison Square Garden in 1989. That was the first one I played in, and I won a low "class prize" within the Expert Division with a 14-13 record. The World Championship was at the Plaza Hotel in 1993. It was the first Worlds for which I qualified, and the second one ever held, and I placed 10th of 64 players.

What is the most amount of money you have won playing Scrabble®? What did you do with the money?
I won $25,000 for each of the 1997 World Championship and the 2002 National Championship. It all goes toward basic living expenses. I'm not materialistic or extravagant, but I do like food, shelter, climate control and electric light, and using my opposable thumbs to hit the space bar on my computer keyboard.

What is the highest score you have ever achieved in a single game? Play? What was the word?
My highest game was exactly 700. Highest play occurred in a different game, 212 for AFFECTER across two triple word squares.

In the Scrabble® world your nickname is "G.I. Joel". Why?
I'm not a doctor and I don't play one on TV; nor have I never been in military service, neither of us would have the other. It stands for Gastro Intestinal, because of my chronic churning tummy.

Recently you were featured in a documentary about Scrabble® called Word Wars. What did you think of the movie? Did seeing yourself on the big screen change you as a person?
I attended the New York City premiere at the Cinema Village on 12th St. in June. I also was flown to Sundance and had a lot of fun doing post-screening Q & A's there with the directors and Marlon Hill another featured Scrabble® player in the documentary. I love the film, thought it was very well made, and presented us accurately both because of and in spite of it being from the viewpoint of a filmmaker who shares our passion.

I don't think it changed me, though it certainly made me a little more aware of my image. For example, it showed me how often I laugh at my own jokes, as if I need to cue the listener I was purposely making fun, and now I cringe every time I see those moments. And yet, folks say that doesn't bother them about me. So mostly, the film just demonstrated to me how many different ways people perceive things.

Where do you play Scrabble® in New York? Describe the scene.
I play at the club that I now have been directing for the past five or six years, NSA Club #56 in Manhattan. We rent a room from Honors Bridge Club at 133 E. 58th St. betw. Park and Lex. Every Thursday night, and some Sunday afternoons. The ambiance varies from club to club, as do the players. Some clubs (like mine) are highly organized and ultra competitive, others are more social and populated by less skilled players (often the much older players). Our club has a nice mix of demographics though, we range from teens to veteran players in their fifties and sixties, and even one or two around 80. Our club has comfortable furniture and snacks provided by Honors, and is in an office building with lobby security. Other club venues range from libraries and community centers to churches and school cafeterias or lounges, to restaurants or large retail stores with café spaces. The weekly club sessions tend to be more relaxed than rated tourneys. Our players like to take the game seriously, but we also encourage them to have fun. And they really do get to be all members of a very large family when they find their word-crossing kindred spirits. Plenty of socialization goes on among the players away form the board. Occasionally, romances even develop.

Why do New Yorkers make tougher Scrabble® players?
Probably the general New York City business attitude, a determination to be successful, commitment to do whatever is necessary to that end, and pure "put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is" aggressiveness.

Most of the professional Scrabble® players seem to be men. Why do you think that is?
We're not as likely to be distracted by or feel we owe responsibilities to "real life" concerns as women. And we still have been more culturally conditioned to be competitive, though that is slowly changing.

Like sports stars, Scrabble® players tend to have a lot of lucky charms or superstitious rituals they do before a game. Do you have any? What are some others you know of?
My only pre-tourney ritual is to play a couple of songs I consider relevant on the piano before I leave home. I don't think I can really call doing that a superstition, it just puts me in a positive frame of mind, a "happy place," if I play and sing well. I don't know of other players' rituals, but several do have lucky charms, which range from stuffed animals to pictures of their children or spouse or friend or mentor that they will set on the playing table next to them.

How many games of Scrabble® do you play on a daily basis? Do you ever feel like there is such thing as playing too much?
I play anywhere from two to ten games in a day, depending on whether I’m at a tourney, or playing a training session with another player or a computer program, or just passing a random day in between. I do feel it is possible to play too much, but only when the games are serious, with prize money at stake. It can be tiring (mentally, physically and emotionally) to play the game at the highest level, and I feel the quality of play starts to decline when you play more than six games in a tourney day. But a lot of the players just want more and more, and seven and eight game days at tourneys are becoming fairly common. I don't like playing substandard games, but at least I know the effect will be about the same on most of my opponents as on me, so I don't feel too disadvantaged by it.

What are some of your study tricks to become a better player?
Tricks to become a better player are at my club web page, and more can be garnered on a regular basis by joining the National Scrabble Association, andreading the newsletter it distributes 8 times a year. Human minds work in a variety of ways, so everyone has to experiment to find the study habit that is most effective for them, but any study will help your game to some degree. The fastest way to begin playing a decent competitive game is to learn the 1,000-odd words that are printed on two sides of a single sheet which the NSA sends to all new members. That sheet lists all of the acceptable two- and three-letter words, short words that use the high value tiles (JQXZ), all the Q words where it is not immediately followed by a U, and medium length vowel dumps (ways to shed multiple I's or U's in one word or four- or five-letter words containing three or four vowels).

Name the top five web sites you visit on a regular basis.
http://www.isc.ro -- that's where I play Scrabble(r) on-line
http://www.scrabble-association.com -- for upcoming tourney listings, results and ratings for me, and anything anyone else would want to know about our pursuit and community
http://www.imdb.com -- the Internet Movie Database, where I like to look up cast lists, filmographies and biographies of my favorite actors
http://www.jumbletime.com -- a nice anagramming practice server
The fifth would probably be "adult", which I won't name, because anyone's personal taste in that area is none of anyone else's business.

Most Scrabble® players are good with anagrams. Can you anagram GOTHAMISTDOTCOM into anything interesting?
GOT TO MID-STOMACH is the best I came up with, most of the others were too scatological (note presence of DOG SHIT).

Interview by Kristen Duncan Williams