Scrabble at 70 … can we have a word?


The archetypal “family board game” Scrabble already has a heritage that rivals that of a small European nation. At least 150 million sets have been produced in over 120 countries, along with a list of some 276,000 “legal” words.

More than half of UK households have Scrabble on their shelves, while around 30,000 games are launched every hour, apparently.

It may be surprising that such a geeky game has inspired such a dedicated audience, but perhaps the secret to Scrabble‘s success lies in accessibility. The object of the game is simple – to use letters to form words and score points – and it embodies this winning combination: easy to learn, complex to master.

It’s fair to say that Scrabble looks pretty good at 70. It’s not that the game has aged during that time – more that it has barely changed at all. With the exception of the unannounced Scrabble Trickster, the rules have remained almost the same since its incorporation in 1948, while “New Editions” tend to be limited to raising the picture slightly.

Even comparable classics like Monopoly have made some token innovations (see glorious duds like FedEx Monopoly, Bass Fishing Monopoly, and an edition based on The Powerpuff Girls), but for Scrabble the old ways have always been the best.

So, as Scrabble turns 70, here’s a look at the game’s meteoric rise, from the distraction of the Depression Era to the linchpin of modern recreation …

Lexiko, Criss-Cross and Alfred Mosher Butts

As with so many iconic American inventions, the early days of Scrabble follow a classic tale of failure, persistence, and the “American Dream.”

In the early 1930s, Alfred Mosher Butts was an underemployed New York architect, struggling under the weight of the Great Depression. After an equally unsuccessful stint as a painter, Butts decided to take two popular hobbies of the day – crosswords and anagrams – and combine them into one game. He determined the frequency of the different letters in analyzing hundreds of copies of the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and the Saturday Evening Post.

The resulting creation, Lexiko, met with rejected patents and slammed doors, while an unfortunate rebranding to the name Criss-Cross Words did little better. Just as Butts was starting to lose hope, a lifeline arrived in the form of James Brunot, an established entrepreneur and gamer, who renamed Project Scrabble and pushed it into commercial production.

The game was picked up by Macy’s and the sets quickly left the shelves of the same companies that had previously rejected it. Butts lived off royalties for the rest of his life, only emerging to develop another title, hopefully named Alfred’s Other Game. He didn’t sell.

Scrabble goes global

Scrabble was apparently the perfect product, and it spent the following decades outperforming its competition with little to no modification. As the global reach of the game grew, so did the potential for international competitions. 1991 saw the first Scrabble World Championship – although the London-based event was almost canceled after all participants assumed someone else would bring the tiles.

2016 Scrabble World Champion Brett Smitheram (left) has been a Scrabble Grandmaster for over 20 years and knows better than anyone how intensely the game can be played. “I would classify it as a ‘sport of the mind’,” he says. “Certainly it ceases to be a game – we play it at a much higher level – and many aspects of the sport carry on. When I won my world championship I was at my peak physical and ability physical effects play directly into your ability to concentrate. “

Mastery of Scrabble is a blend of memory, temperament, and analytical skills, but the efforts of the game have not always found universal recognition. Journalists often challenge Brett to games during interviews and are disappointed when they inevitably lose. “You wouldn’t expect to beat Mo Farah at a marathon,” he says.

The Scrabble competitions are unfortunately all organized separately: there is no “tour” in snooker or darts, and Scrabble is not yet a sustainable career. “The challenge for Scrabble is that we are an exclusive brand,” says Brett, “we are owned by Hasbro in North America and Mettel everywhere else, which makes it difficult to get sponsorship. Even the best players can only break even. – I also need a job, I’m afraid. “

Even so, the Scrabble community keeps the game going with zealous enthusiasm. New additions to the lexicon may cause major controversy (this year the word “twerk” was the main concern). It was played underwater, diving into the sky and, with the aim of breaking a world record, for over 153 hours straight. Online glossaries help hobbyists familiarize themselves with more difficult terminology, such as brailing, coffee, and rack balancing. Initially a tool for learning English, Scrabble has now exploded in parts of Africa. The continent has the world’s first team in Nigeria, and Senegal its craziest Scrabble nation.

When the Senegalese hosted the French-speaking World Scrabble Championships in 2008, their national team stepped out in specially designed sportswear, accompanied by a government-commissioned ‘Scrabble song’ to commemorate the event.

While English remains the lingua franca of international competition, other languages ​​are beginning to gain ground. Legendary scrabbler and 2018 champion Nigel Richards recently expanded into French scrabble – learning the entire dictionary in six weeks. They say in the streets that Spanish will be next.

The board‘s rage

Scrabble may be famous for families, but it can also cause the kind of household dusting normally reserved for politics and religion. In 1996, a Maryland woman was charged with assault after hitting her husband on the head with a Scrabble board.

In the UK, a retiree was reportedly evicted from her retirement home for admitting she had not played the game, while a five-year-old from Leicester once called police when he suspected his cheating sister.

“If you lose at chess, you’ve just lost a few pieces on a chess board,” says Brett, “but losing at Scrabble challenges your ability with your own language. People take it as an indictment.”

Scrabble on smartphone

There is one pretty crucial aspect in which Scrabble has embraced the modern era: the ability to play online. Scrabble can now travel in a back pocket, shuffle your tiles at will and pit you against players from all five continents.

More players than ever are putting virtual tiles on virtual boards, but it has been a mixed blessing. Unless you hide extra tiles up your sleeves, Live Scrabble is nearly impossible to cheat, but an online scam cabal is now threatening the integrity of this once pure game. Dishonorable Scrabblers can access software that suggests potential words and sorts them by score. Just type in your seven letters and an online dictionary-cum-ghost writer does the rest.

Fortunately, high-level games require a bit more tactical cunning. “To the seasoned Scrabble player, it’s very obvious when someone is cheating,” said Brett, “because he’s playing the wrong words. If you’re good enough to know that mbaqanga is a word, then you know. probably you shouldn’t play it in so that your opponent scores 500 on their next move. “

So at 70 this pun is doing very well, and in 2019 enthusiasts can look forward to yet another schedule of Scrabble extravagance. (You should write it down. It’s worth 33 points.)

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