Settling The Word Score: No Proper Nouns In Scrabble Calm down, Scrabble purists. Turns out rumors about allowing proper nouns in the beloved board game were just rumors. Scrabble expert Stefan Fatsis says the rules have remained virtually unchanged since the game was first marketed in 1948 — and after 62 years of consistency, no one can mess with the game that easily.

Hear Stefan Fatsis' Discussion With Neal Conan

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Before we go any further, we did check the convention that handed Charles Evan Hughes the nomination for president of the United States, was held in Chicago, not in New York. so Ken was right.

Sighs of relief replaced cries of outrage as Scrabble fans who figured out that yesterday's news was mostly hype and misinformation. Numerous sources today retracted reports that Scrabble had changed its rules to allow the use of proper nouns. Scrabble coach and word freak writer Stefan Fatsis says it ain't so, at least not in this country.

If you have questions about Scrabblegate, give us a call. We'd also like to hear from you if there are any rules you bend from time to time as you stare helplessly at your tiles. Our phone number is: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stefan Fatsis's books include "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players." And he joins us now from his home here in Washington. Stefan, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Author): Hey, Neal. Good to be back.

CONAN: So this turned out to be just, well, not American.

Mr. FATSIS: Well, not American and not even non-American, frankly. I mean, what this turned out to be was Mattel, the company that owns the rights to Scrabble outside of North America, is going to be rolling out a spin-off version of the game this summer called something - it's going to be called Scrabble Trickster. And in it, yes, you will be able to use a proper noun occasionally if you land on a particular square. And when you land on a particular square, you'll be able to draw a card, and the card will let you use a proper noun...

CONAN: Ah...

Mr. FATSIS: ...or spell a word backwards or steal a tile from one of your opponents. So it is basically a gimmicky spin-off of traditional Scrabble. And that's not surprising. I mean, this is what companies do. There have been dozens of spin-offs of Scrabble since the game was invented in the 19 - essentially marketed in the 1950s and then passed into real corporate ownership in the '70s and '80s.

CONAN: But meantime, the company that has the rights to the Scrabble game in this country insists it stays the same.

Mr. FATSIS: It does. I mean - and Mattel, the company that has the rights outside of the country said, look, we're still selling a normal Scrabble. This is there's nothing is changing to the normal rules of Scrabble anywhere in the world. What I think happened here was there was an overzealous public relations person for Mattel who decided to gin up a controversy, basically.

I mean, I don't know that for a fact, but it sure sounds to me like by going to the media and saying these are new rules but people can still play the old rules, that you are in effect replacing the traditional beloved version of the game with something newfangled. That was not the case at all. This is just, again, a spin-off.

Hasbro, the company that owns the rights to Scrabble in North America, has nothing to do with this. They are not marketing any similar game. Though believe me, their ears perked up yesterday...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: ...because of the amount of publicity...

CONAN: Publicity...

Mr. FATSIS: ...that Scrabble was getting, yeah.

CONAN: And of course, we're not hurting that either. Nevertheless, why, why what difference does it make if proper nouns would be available?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, I think here's the difference. One is that Scrabble is, to my mind, anyway, and to the minds of many people who play it seriously, a game that transcends any corporate ownership. It really is up there on the sort of what I like to call the Mount Rushmore of games, with chess and backgammon and Go...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FATSIS: ...the great Chinese game. I mean, it's a strategic game. It has a very embedded, serious rules that have been in effect since the game was invented. And Scrabble was invented in the '30s and '40s. It was marketed in 1948 by a company and then it really took off in the '50s in the United States.

And since it's an inception, the rules that Alfred Butts, the inventor of the game, came up with stated very clearly that any words found on a standard dictionary are permitted, except those capitalized, designated as foreign words, abbreviations and words requiring apostrophes or hyphens. So the rules have been clear. And to tinker with the very fundamental rules of something would be to tinker with greatness, frankly.

CONAN: But that means I can't use the name of Superman's nemesis, Mr. Mxyzptlk.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah. Exactly. You can't, and you shouldn't. Plus, if you try to introduce proper nouns as a practical matter, what would your source be to adjudicate disputes? Google? That would be pretty much the only place you could go. Would it be only proper nouns that are included in certain dictionaries? Well, that would be one way to do it.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Mr. FATSIS: But this is a nice clean way of saying we have standards in this game and standards, frankly, in the English language that determine what is a word and what isn't a word for the purposes of playing this game.

CONAN: And you are one of those people who takes this game seriously. You're not just a writer about Scrabble - an avid player, a coach, as I understand it.

Mr. FATSIS: I am. I started - there's a big national school Scrabble program for fifth to eighth graders, mostly middle school students. And I introduced it to the school where my daughter goes here in Washington and then took it a middle school nearby and then took it to another elementary school in D.C.

And just this week I'm taking 12 kids to the National School Scrabble Championships, which will be held in Orlando, Florida. We're going to have more than 200 players from around the country competing for a $10,000 first prize. And these kids get it. They understand what words are and what rules are for games. And it's really a great thing to see kids pick up on and appreciate language for what it is and really adopt the competitive nature and the strategic nature and fall in love with something that, you know, doesn't involve a video game.

CONAN: As we mentioned earlier in the program, the cherry blossoms are out here in Washington, D.C. And, Stefan, are those allergies we're hearing?

Mr. FATSIS: They are a little bit, yeah.

CONAN: Okay, because pollen is in the air here on an extremely, unseasonably warm day.

But anyway, we want you to give us a call and tell us, well, how you might bend the rules occasionally as you look at that tiled square, as you play Scrabble: 800-989-8255. Email:

And Maureen is on the line from Salisbury, Maryland.

MAUREEN (Caller): Hi. You know, there are a group of us that play on a regular basis, or actually irregular basis, maybe every six weeks. And we abide by all the rules except we have dictionaries on the table. We leaf through them. We have lists of vowel dumps and three-letter words and Q without U's (unintelligible).

Mr. FATSIS: Great.

MAUREEN: And - because otherwise I think we'd be there all night long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: That - that's a great, great thing that you're doing. And I - that's how I recommend to people to play the game. You can download very easily a list of all the two and three-letter words and all of the short words that have a J or a Q or an X or a Z or a Q that doesn't have - Q words that don't have a U in them. And that makes the game more fun and it helps you learn more words.

The hurdle that most people have - casual players have with Scrabble -is accepting the fact that our language is so broad and there's so many weird words that we don't use on a daily basis. But the Scrabble dictionary - and I also recommend you use the official Scrabble dictionary as opposed to your...


Mr. FATSIS: know, whatever dictionary you got lying around. But you can do whatever you want at home. But the dictionary is just a -it's a tool to decide what's a word and what isn't a word. It's a way to resolve disputes.

And the thing about dictionaries that I think people don't appreciate is that A) there are tons of words in even the most basic, standard collegiate dictionary that you don't know and you don't use on a daily basis, but B) dictionaries are ever evolving. Our language changes, words are taken out of these books and new words replace them. And that's what makes English and what makes Scrabble so much fun.

CONAN: And E-Z would be, of course, a proper name - not applicable in your game. Maureen...

Mr. FATSIS: It would not. But Z-A is now acceptable in Scrabble.

CONAN: Really? Za?

Mr. FATSIS: It means - it's slang for pizza. And, you know, people say, oh, come on, nobody says that. I am here to testify that when I was a kid in the town I grew up, we would say let's go get some za.

CONAN: Za. Okay.

Mr. FATSIS: There you go, za.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Maureen, how seriously are you - are your players?

MAUREEN: Well, actually, we're all pretty much word fanatics and I think I'm there for comic relief, actually, because there's some really, really smart people at our table. But, yeah, we take it seriously. And the only thing we do that - well, actually, we do less of because we have more smart people is we used to drink more.


(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That doesn't help with the intelligence quotient as the game goes on.

MAUREEN: No, it doesn't, it doesn't. It takes way longer. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAUREEN: ...but it's a pretty serious group. We have a good time.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call.

MAUREEN: Thanks. Take care.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go next to - this is Oz, Oz with us from Richmond, Virginia.

OZ (Caller): Hi. A pleasure to talk to both of you.

CONAN: All right. Go ahead. What...

Mr. FATSIS: Hey, Oz.

CONAN: Do you bend the rules?

OZ: Well, I don't know if this is a hard and fast rule in the game. I've never come across it, and frankly, I never look for it. But a friend of ours who we play with turned us on to a rule where if the blank tile is played and say a valuable letter, R, was put to it, and your turn came around and you happen to have an R in your rack, you could swap your R for the blank tile and play that either on that turn or any other turn subsequent to it.

CONAN: Aha. Okay. So...

Mr. FATSIS: That's a classic. I love that rule. I used to play that when I was a kid before I got serious about the game. And, you know, and that's the thing, you can do whatever you want at home and make the game more fun for you, make it play more quickly, as Maureen said, or recycle the blanks to give people a better chance to make longer words, to make those seven and eight-letter words.

CONAN: Oz, of course another proper name would not be allowed in.

Mr. FATSIS: It would not.

CONAN: It would not. Thanks very much for the call.

OZ: Bye.

CONAN: Here's CandidMaker, or CandidMarketer tweet: You get double-word, triple-word letter - double-word - word, letter - triple-word letter every time you build a word with a letter on those blocks, not just the first time. That...

Mr. FATSIS: That I've never heard people do, but it'll certainly get your scores up.

CONAN: It will certainly get your scores up.

And Chris O'Neal(ph) tweets: I cheat when my wife leaves the room. I grab the letters from the bag that I want. She still wins and does not know that I cheat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: She does now.

Mr. FATSIS: That's a little more deceptive. But you know, the dictionary on the table rule is a great one. And we play at home - when I play with my wife, Melissa Block, of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED...


Mr. FATSIS: ...we leave a dictionary on the table and I have a slight advantage because I have squandered hundreds of hours studying words and memorizing word lists. And you know, we just, you can look words up. So if she has an idea, she looks something up and if it's good, she plays it.

CONAN: Let's get Tom(ph) on the line. Tom's with us from Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

TOM (Caller): Yes. I'm teaching my children, 11 and 13, to play, and I -they're studying Spanish and French so I let them play in Spanish and French when they can find a word. And I also - my next best story, I played with my grandmother until she was 99, and I'd say that she lived that long because she played bridge and Scrabble. And also the last time we played, she Scrabbled the first time in her life, and I will never forget the moment.

CONAN: And what word...

TOM: We had a great many years playing together.

CONAN: What word was it?

TOM: It was something like jingler.

CONAN: Jingler, I see. Got all seven - used all seven tiles?

TOM: Oh, yes, she played all of her tiles.

CONAN: It's a bingo, yes.

TOM: In 40 years of playing, she had never done that, as much as fun as we had.

CONAN: That's a good one. Tom, what do your kids do with these cedillas and the accent aigus?

TOM: Oh, well, yes. We do have to bend that a little bit. And also, I make myself play very quickly. In other words, when I play with pros, we take all the time we want. But I force myself to go really fast because they get bored, and so we try to play quickly.

Mr. FATSIS: You should try to play quickly with the pros too, because the pros get bored. So when you play competitively in a club or a tournament...

TOM: (Unintelligible) I know what you mean...

Mr. FATSIS: No, no, no. Because when you play in a club or a tournament setting, well, we use a chess clock, so each side gets 25 minutes to play a game.

TOM: Yes, that's reasonable.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Stefan Fatsis, author - among other things -of "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And if you joined us late and haven't kept up on the news, take a breath, get your palpitations down: Proper names are not allowed in Scrabble, except this one weird little game that's being marketed in Britain this summer - don't worry about it.

Anyway, Stefan Fatsis, have you seen people - have there been cases of people cheating in competitive Scrabble?

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, there have been. It's rare because there really is an ethic in the competitive world. Everyone is there because they adore this game. And the competitive juices do flow, but the intellectual challenge is what really trumps everything else. You'll see at the highest level of tournament Scrabble, the final game, you know, for the $25,000 first prize at the national championship, the game will end and rather than someone, you know, standing up and pumping his fist in the air or pulling his shirt out, you'll see the two players just sit there and reconstruct the end of the game to see if they made any mistakes or see what went wrong.

There have been a few, yeah, there have been a couple of sort of prominent cases in the Scrabble world. There's was - one guy was once accused of palming a Q, to get it off of his rack...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: he wouldn't have to play it, because the Q is tough to play. And there was another more recent case where a player was accused of looking in the bag at the letters while he was drawing them out, while he was pulling them onto his rack. And that was a pretty serious offense.

CONAN: Let's get Deborah on the line. Deborah with us from Cincinnati.

DEBORAH (Caller): Hi. Your Scrabble expert brings up a good point for me because if he's saying you can use the regular dictionary, which is how we typically play, I'm wondering when a words like Google gets added, if that is okay in the proper Scrabble, as I'll call it, because it's a proper noun, but yet it's now in the dictionary as a verb.

CONAN: With...

Mr. FATSIS: Well, the language is ever-changing. And many words that were either considered proper in the past, like Kleenex or Xerox or Benadryl, are now - have actually translated and become a common usage, lowercase usage. Google, I believe...

CONAN: I think...

Mr. FATSIS: ...has not been - Google has not been added.


Mr. FATSIS: Googly is good. It's a type of bowled ball in cricket.

CONAN: In cricket, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEBORAH: Okay. I'll keep that in mind...

CONAN: Be careful about the spelling there...

Mr. FATSIS: I think googolplex is good in Scrabble. A little bit longer.

CONAN: Googolplex, but that's a toughie, yeah.

Mr. FATSIS: That's a mathematical term.

CONAN: It is, yeah. Deborah, thanks...

DEBORAH: One other point, too, I wanted to make is that it's been a cultural thing for my family. I mean, it's been passed on for generations, from - I played - I think your last caller said with his grandmother, I've done the same. And I know that they're doing this probably to market to young people because it's more popular culture. But I think that the Internet has done a great job. I know, you know, I play against my cousin who lives in Arizona and we play online with each other. And I think that's drawn a lot more younger people to the game too, being able to play online.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. FATSIS: That's a really good point, and it's something that I wanted to touch on, which is that for all of these attempts to market things to a younger generation and to change rules and sex things up, the reality is a game like Scrabble is timeless. And one of the virtues of its timelessness is that people love it. I mean, there's a reason that people still - millions of people still play this 60-plus years after it was invented. And online, hundreds of thousands of people are playing Scrabble every day. Even, you don't need to do much to the game to attract people. And as this school program demonstrates, you can get kids hooked on the game at a very young age, and it offers all kinds of benefits.

CONAN: Thanks, Deborah.

DEBORAH: Well, thank you. And I'll be sure to use Googolplex the next time I'm playing my cousin. I'll be...

Mr. FATSIS: Good luck. Tell me if you do.

CONAN: All right. Let's go next to Bakar(ph) in Charlottesville.

BAKAR (Caller): Hello again(ph). How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

BAKAR: I have cheated on Scrabble before. I'm (unintelligible) Scrabble player. I love to play Scrabble. I win most of the time. I always turn out to be the winner. But one day, I mean, I am a nurse, and I have a private duty job. And one of the entertainment that we do with my patient, because she was a Scrabble player before she had stroke, we normally play Scrabble together. And my fellow nurse has been upsetting me all day, getting on my nerves. And I don't want her to win, but she was on the verge of winning for the first time. But then I have six tiles. I was looking for one letter for the past, I don't know, 30 minutes. And I just can't find the tile, so I decided to use a blank to use it - build the word. But I dont have a blank, so I decided to use one of the letter and turn it, flip it over...

CONAN: Oh, no.

BAKAR: ...(unintelligible) a blank. (Unintelligible) she wasn't well aware of it.

CONAN: Did you get away with it?

BAKAR: I got away with it. I had a seven letter word, and I won the game, but my patient knew that something was wrong, and she was trying to get the attention of the other lady, but she was not - you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FATSIS: Pretty easy to suss that one out because there are only two blanks in a bag of Scrabble tiles.

CONAN: But...

Mr. FATSIS: When that third one hits the board, you have a pretty good clue that something is up. But congratulations for your quick thinking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAKAR: Thank you.

CONAN: Bakar, thanks very much for the story. And Stefan, thank you for your time. I know you're going to be off to take these kids to the tournament.

Mr. FATSIS: I am. We're - the tournament is on Friday and Saturday. And you can actually follow the results online if you are interested in learning more about these kids playing scrabble.

CONAN: And what's the URL?

Mr. FATSIS: I believe it is

CONAN: We'll put a link to that on our Web site at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Have a great time, Stefan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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