By Deanna Isaacs
Make a word from these nine letters: F L I C D F T I U. It’ll describe Marshall Kaminsky’s situation as he stumbles into the lobby of his Skokie apartment building to pick up his mail. He’s struggling with the walker, the heavy glass door, the legs that aren’t working, shrugging off help as he lunges toward the mailbox. “I’m learning to fall,” he says. It’s meant to be a joke, but it’s painfully true. Getting to the mailbox, negotiating the door, and making his way back down the hall is a major undertaking for Kaminsky, who’s had a visit from “Mr. MS,” which arrived just about the time he began to develop Ozzie, “the second-best word game ever.” Back in the apartment, he drops himself onto a sofa–an amiable wreck in sweats and a salt-and-pepper beard–and begins to explain how this computer game popped into his head and what he went through to transform it into a marketable product. Apologizing for slurred words, he says he’ll make good on the thousand-dollar cash prize he’s promised to the person with the highest Ozzie score as of March 31, even though he’s flat broke and living on public aid.
It wasn’t always like this, but that’s life: you get your rack of letters (some better than others) and make your moves. Kaminsky, a daydreamer with a creative bent, graduated from South Shore High School and went to Southern Illinois University, where he made his first big mistake by majoring in accounting. “No one tells you these things in college,” he says, but “as a CPA, it’s bad news having an imagination.” He joined the IRS as a revenue agent in San Francisco, started a family, and was happy for a while. “When I worked there they were all straight as arrows,” he says. The seed of another big mistake took root: spurred by “greed and ambition,” he quit the IRS and set up a private practice. “Little did I realize how much I’d hate it. I did become rich–the mansion, the big car. But I was absolutely miserable. Hated to wake up in the morning. It was a circle of everybody cheating everybody. I just couldn’t stand it.” At 45 he went through a midlife crisis that “killed the marriage and killed everything.” He quit accounting, came back to Chicago, and moved in with a woman who’s a writer and, like him, a Scrabble freak. Then, about four years ago, he got the idea for Ozzie–an aid to Scrabble players. Encouraged by the National Scrabble Association, he started to work it out–“not knowing how to program, not knowing a thing about computers, hardly. It was a nightmare for about two and a half years.”
In need of technical help, Kaminsky struck a deal with a young Russian programmer who worked without pay in exchange for a small piece of the profits and a chance to learn English. “It was torture,” Kaminsky says. “Every day he’d program the game and I’d have to debug his program.” When the programmer got a regular job and quit after a year and a half, the game was still unfinished. Kaminsky was stranded again, but soon made a lucky draw. On an Internet Scrabble forum he found a London programmer who had more experience than the Russian and was a Scrabble player. “He volunteered to do it. He thought it was gonna take him a month. It took nine months, but he came up with something that was really marvelous.”
Ozzie has similarities to the best word game ever. You get a certain number of letters–seven in the kid’s version; nine for adults–then race against a 20-minute clock to make words out of them. Each letter has a numerical value; the idea is to rack up as many points as possible. There are bonus points for using difficult letters and for word placement on the board, but if you make a spelling error, trade a letter, or take too long, you’re penalized. And then there’s what Kaminsky calls the game’s most unique feature: after you accumulate a certain number of points, you can go to the “casino” and either run your total through the ceiling or lose your shirt. “Ozzie makes your life miserable,” Kaminsky says. “There’s all sorts of limitations, but there’s also all sorts of bonuses.”
When the game was finished, Kaminsky sent a copy to the National Scrabble Association for an opinion. “So I get back a phone call one day. My heart almost stopped. All I heard them saying was the word ‘marvelous.’ These are the pickiest people on earth when it comes to word games. And they’re saying words like wonderful, inventive, great.” The English Scrabble association was equally complimentary. By last spring, Kaminsky knew he had a great product–but he also knew one of his personal clocks had run out. The multiple sclerosis that had gone into remission after being diagnosed 22 years earlier had returned in earnest: his limbs were going numb, his mind beginning to scramble. “I finished Ozzie just in time,” he says, “but I can’t market it, because I don’t have the strength to walk ten feet. I can’t deal with packaging, sales, orders. I really don’t know what to do with it.”
Kaminsky’s put out feelers to sell and believes that “somebody smart who buys Ozzie will make a lot of money.” Until then, he’s retailing it from his Web site, www.pagefront.com/ozzie, and players are competing for the thousand-dollar prize, which it looks like he’ll have to borrow. “One fellow already had a 162,000-point game,” Kaminsky says. “I don’t think anybody’s going to catch him.” Meanwhile, Kaminsky’s busy. Besides the four naps a day he now needs, there’s the romance novel he’s writing (with an MS patient as its heroine), an anti-whole-life-insurance consumer-advocacy project (a result of his CPA days), and another invention: Googol, the best math game ever.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Newberry.