Scrabble is a lousy game
Merriam-Webster published the sixth edition of its official dictionary of Scrabble players last week. Like previous iterations, the new dictionary is getting a lot of attention. Newly playable words include best friend (a best friend), zomboid (looking like a zombie), type (a crushing defeat), uh (used to express disgust), scowling (showing a frown), qapik (a currency subunit in Azerbaijan) and – this one thrills the Scrabble community –Okay.
As an avid board gamer, I love the idea that small tweaks to any game can get so much attention. But it annoys me to see so many players sticking to Scrabble during the current table gaming renaissance, which began with Settlers of Catan in the 1990s and shows no signs of abating. There are many other best game options out there.
Scrabble, to put it bluntly, is a lousy game. The only reason people play it, I guess, is blind habit. I see no other explanation.
It’s not that I don’t like words. I like the words. But what I like about words is their meaning and their etymology, which no real Scrabble player bother to study, as such details have nothing to do with scoring. The game’s only connection to the use of words in the real world is in the point values ââassigned to the various letter tiles, which American inventor Alfred Butts based on how often the letters appeared on the first page of the New York Times in the late 1930s – the rarer the letter, the more points it is worth.
Scrabble is like a math contest in which you are rewarded for reciting pi to the 1,000th decimal place, but not for knowing that it expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Word odious is just a bunch of letters. It only becomes beautiful and interesting when you learn that it comes from Latin words ex gregis– outside the herd.
“The only reason people play it, I guess, is blind habit. I see no other explanation.“
I once tried to help my friend John Chew teach Scrabble to elementary students in our neighborhood in Toronto. One of his documents listed the four dozen words that contain Q but not U, such as qi. It was a total stop. Memorizing lists is no fun. It’s work.
Tellingly, many of the best Scrabble players in the world don’t even speak English (as in Thailand, where the game is particularly popular). In 2015, New Zealand Scrabble legend Nigel Richards got so bored of tearing down opponents in English that he memorized a French dictionary and won the French Scrabble Championships. But he still can’t order coffee in Paris. Scrabble treats language like computers, like arbitrarily ordered codes stored in a memory chip.
The best Scrabble players certainly have a very sharp mind, not only for memorization but also for seeing the spatial relationships that allow them to arrange letters in a way that maximizes score. Two years ago, I was accompanying my friend John to the Canadian National Scrabble Championships. In the best-of-five final match, Ottawa-area Grandmaster Adam Logan defeated Vancouver’s James Leong. I watched the action unfold on a video monitor in an adjacent room, where John provided real-time expert commentary. It taught me a lot about how a big Scrabble brain works.
But I still couldn’t figure out why these big brains find the game fun, especially since Scrabble can get tense. Last year, Allan Simmons, a former British champion, was banned from competing after he was caught glancing at the tiles before pulling them out of the bag. And an insider once told me the troubling story of a competitor who tried to tag an illegal word by taking advantage of his disabled opponent’s difficulty in gaining access to the computer used to determine which words qualify.
But then again, why shouldn’t Scrabble induce tension and hostility? It’s basically a memorization test that makes you feel smug when you succeed and stupid when you fail.
There are all kinds of games out there, and what turns my crank doesn’t have to turn yours. But in the midst of this cornucopia, some general principles apply. One of them is that a fun game of beer and pretzel should have a mixture of skill and luck. Backgammon is a classic example, as are many of the more popular card games. A game of luck and without skill, like Snakes and Ladders or Unicorn Glitterluck, on the other hand, is only suitable for small children. And a game that is all skill-based and unlucky, like checkers, go, or chess, will always be less popular with couples and friends than in dedicated clubs, where players can sort each other out by skill.
Those who enjoy word games should try the 2015 hit Codenames, in which “spymasters” take turns giving one-word clues to help teammates target the words laid out on a game board; or Paperback, in which players take on the role of novelists trying to meet a deadline. Both present a good mix of luck and skill. Scrabble, on the other hand, involves just enough luck to disqualify him from the most exhilarated realms of mental sports (which is why everyone knows Garry Kasparov’s name but few know Nigel Richards), while the vast memorization requirements mean beginners will always be humiliated. by veterans.
In an essay titled “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Madman,” George Orwell dissected Leo Tolstoy’s strangely intense contempt for Shakespeare. But after defending Shakespeare for a few pages, Orwell conceded that âthere is no argument by which to defend a poem. He defends himself by surviving, or he is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be “not guilty”.
In this sense, the games are like poems. Like other Scrabble zomboid fans (including the millions who play the popular Scrabble smartphone app), my friend John doesn’t give a qapik for my frowny ew in response to his beloved game. It’s something we’ve both learned to live with – because we’re table besties. But deep in my gaming heart, I know I will never concede that Scrabble is OK.
-Sir. Kay is the Canadian editor of Quillette magazine and co-author of the forthcoming book “We, the Meeple: What Board Games Tell Us About Who We Are”.
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