Aug. 19, 2002
-- It's one of the most popular games in history. It sells around 3 million sets worldwide each year in 23 different languages.
An old TV commercial calls it "Winters by the fire, and summers by the sea. It's holidays and family." And while many players may find the game to be reasonably illustrated in images of "cocoa," "kids," and "rainy weekends you hope will never end," those who take Scrabble seriously take it very, very seriously. At this week's National Scrabble Championships in San Diego, more than 700 tile-jockeys are vying for the grand prize: a check for $25,000.
To those weaned on a less intense Scrabble, the primary challenge may be getting rid of that Q before the game runs out (Hint: try QANAT*). But to die-hard competitors, it's a game that combines elements of luck, skill and preparation in equal measure. Well, maybe not equal. Training for major events like the National Championships can hijack years of the best players' lives, countless hours devoted to memorizing thousands of words they might never be able to use in a sentence.
Stefan Fatsis has lived this obsession. Five years ago he dived into a sea of Scrabble and has barely emerged to take a breath since. Fatsis' account of his experiences can be found in his book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players
. For NPR's ongoing series, Present at the Creation
, he chronicles the creation of the game by Alfred Mosher Butts.
The story of Scrabble has much in common with the game's appeal to its most ardent supporters. It involves a germ of inspiration, an architect's facility with geometry, a whole lot of dedicated tinkering and a bit of luck.
Scrabble might not have existed had Butts not come upon hard times during the Great Depression. In 1931, Butts was laid off from his job at New York architecture firm Holden McLaughlin and Associates. Looking back in 1986, at a Tenafly, N.J., Young Inventors' Club meeting, he was surprisingly good-natured about the experience.
"Well, I wasn't doing anything," Butts remembered. "That's the trouble. I didn't have anything to do; I didn't have a job. So I thought I'd invent a game."
Following this urge, Butts scanned the field. As he saw it, most games fit into one of three types: numbers-based games like cards or dice, board games like chess, and games based on letters. Noting the relative dearth of the last category, he decided to focus on words.
First, Butts produced Lexiko, in which players tried to construct words from nine randomly drawn lettered tiles. In order to ensure that players weren't forced to deal with the prospect of a rack full of Xs, Butts methodically charted the frequency of letters in the English language, using words chosen from the pages of The New York Times
, New York Herald Tribune
and the Saturday Evening Post
as well as dictionaries. But when he submitted the finished product, game manufacturers including Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley replied with rejection letters. He sold a few sets himself, but lost money.
As Fatsis reports, Butts didn't give up there. The problem was the lack of a board, so he added one, then assigned point values to each letter based on their frequency. He reduced the number of tiles held at a time to seven, modified squares to double or triple the value of the letter or word placed on them, and tried various spots for the starting point, from the center to the upper left corner and in between. He named the new version Criss-Cross Words. Once again, game companies said they weren't interested.
Butts kept tinkering, and the game continued to sell in small quantities, trickling by word of mouth through the Northeast. Having been rehired by his old architectural firm, Butts wasn't looking to make his living in the game world anymore, and when James Brunot -- who had played the game while living in Washington, D.C. -- approached him in 1947 about handing over production, he agreed. Brunot gave Butts royalties and made a few adjustments: he added the 50-point rule for playing all seven tiles at once, made the center square a double word score, changed the colors of the board, and came up with a new name, Scrabble. (Brunot liked the sound of the word, which means to claw or grope frantically.)
Sales continued to lag for the first few years of Brunot's stewardship of the game, but lightning struck in 1952. Apparently miffed by the fact that his store didn't stock Scrabble, the chairman of Macy's placed a large order. And all of a sudden, popularity shot through the roof. The game sold more than a million sets in 1953, and 3.8 million the following year.
John Williams, the executive director of the National Scrabble Association, credits Butts' obsessive tinkering with the game's lasting popularity. "Think of how different baseball would be if the bases were 100 feet apart or 75 feet apart," he says. "It's kind of the same. Seven letters ended up being perfect. A grid of 15 squares ended up being just perfect."
Despite the popularity of his invention, Butts, who died in 1993, never made a fortune off Scrabble. But he'll always have the appreciation of word freaks the world over.
(*QANAT: An underground channel or tunnel)
Search for more stories
The official Hasbro SCRABBLE®
Web site has information on the game's history
and scoring examples
Learn about the Scrabble national and world championship
tournaments and see a list of local Scrabble clubs
at the National Scrabble Association.
Read more about Alfred Mosher Butts in an excerpt from Stefan Fatsis' book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players
See lists of two
- and three
- letter words.
Read the answers to frequently asked questions