Gustavson Column: The man who ran the other NSA

07/03/2015 6:00 AM |
John Williams. (Credit: Marty Heitner)

John Williams. (Credit: Marty Heitner)

If you’ve lived on the North Fork for a while, you probably have driven past it numerous times. It’s at the southwest corner of Front and Fourth streets in Greenport, and it’s currently known as The Captain’s Cottage in its most recent iteration as a rental cottage. But before that the little white frame building was the home of Williams & Company, the advertising and public relations firm, and, concurrently and somewhat improbably, the headquarters of the National SCRABBLE ® Association. 

Yes, that SCRABBLE — the board game that has enthralled living room players and world champions alike since the 1930s, when it was invented by a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., architect named Alfred Mosher Butts.

How the NSA came to little old Greenport is one of the many fascinating subjects covered in a new book, “Word Nerd — Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground,” by longtime Greenport resident John D. Williams Jr. It’s published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, and it’s currently available in hardcover at Burton’s Book Store in Greenport and online at amazon.com.

Over his 25-year tenure as executive director, John’s duties and achievements included serving as national spokesperson for the NSA; publisher and columnist of the game’s Bible, “The SCRABBLE News”; co-founder of the World SCRABBLE Championship; and architect of the National School SCRABBLE program and championship. He also oversaw the three-fold increase in games sold annually from 250,000 to over one million, and found the time to co-author a best-selling strategy book: “Everything SCRABBLE” (Simon & Schuster).

It goes without saying that he did not accomplish all this on his own. His partner in life and in business, Jane Ratsey Williams, was at his side every step of the way, and John would be the first to admit that he still can’t balance the checkbook without her. Their team at Williams & Co. and the NSA included a host of local talent, with well over a dozen Greenport High School grads working there.

John’s fascination with words and grammar began at an early age in Babylon, where his family, otherwise known as “The Grammar Police,” argued over such matters as the definitions and comparative applications of such words as “irregardless” and “irrespective.” (If you can tell the difference, you’re undoubtedly a better SCRABBLE player than I. [Me?]) He played in many tournaments over the years, including some at the expert level, with a lifetime high game score of 591. (The highest recorded game score ever is 830.)

Long story made short: John’s association with SCRABBLE began when he wrote several freelance pieces for “The SCRABBLE News.” (They must have really liked them.)

Again, I’m not much of a SCRABBLE player, but “Word Nerd” offers much of interest to players and non-players alike. My personal favs include:

• The time he was threatened by an overzealous player when John & Co. were tasked with cutting 175 offensive words from the “Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary.” (Some less-offensive examples: arse, boobie, goyim, poo. All 175 are listed in the book’s appendix.)

• John’s numerous appearances on national television programs, including “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” I remember watching that late-night host talk good-natured smack to two young School SCRABBLE national champions before out-pointing them in an on-air game.

• The 1993 World SCRABBLE Championship at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, where a friend of John’s (okay, it was me) played a practical joke that backfired. (See Page 72 in “Word Nerd” for the gory details.)

These days, two years after his retirement from the NSA, John divides his time between playing (can you guess?) online SCRABBLE and writing, but not just about SCRABBLE. He’s currently in the process of revising two screenplays, something he’s done throughout his professional career, having previously sold two and optioned another.

For a quarter century, John Williams enjoyed being known as “the SCRABBLE guy,” and now he’s setting out to prove there’s life after SCRABBLE. But first there are a few final SCRABBLE-related P’s and Q’s to attend to — namely, a book tour that includes stops in Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, Manhattan, Boston, Los Angeles and, fittingly, Greenport, at Floyd Memorial Library, at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 11, when he will read passages from “Word Nerd.”

TR080609_Gustavson_RThe author is the former co-owner and publisher of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].

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