The sublime joy of Scrabble

Created by an under-employed architect in the Great Depression, it's the perfect pastime for straitened times – and it's 60 tomorrow. Andy McSmith celebrates a true lexicographic phenomenon

Monday 15 December 2008 01:00

Happy birthday, Scrabble! No, make that Joyous Birthday, because although "happy" is one of those deceptively high scoring words, what with H and Y being worth 4, and P 3, making 15 in all, "joyous" has that initial J, worth 8, which lifts it to 16, one point higher.

It is 60 years ago tomorrow that Scrabble was registered as a trade mark by Alfred Mosher Butts, an architect from New York state, and his businessman friend James Brunot.

But age has not stopped the game from being on top of the list of the UK's favourite board games as Christmas approaches – and not just for families sitting around a board playing with plastic squares.

Earlier this year, the manufacturers of the board game won a landmark ruling against Facebook, which was ordered to remove from their site a game called Scrabulous, which was attracting 500,000 users a day, because it breached copyright. The judgement caused a new Facebook group to spring up, with the self-explanatory name "Save Scrabulous".

The row would have bemused the game's inventor, Alfred Butts, who had time on his hands during the great depression, and made a quixotic (76 points minimum) decision to set about inventing a new board game. Analysing those that were already popular, he observed that they were in three categories: number games such as dice and bingo; games involving moves, as in chess, and word games, such as anagrams and crosswords.

By 1931, he had developed a word game that also had a bit of arithmetic thrown in, which he called Lexico. It was played without a board. He made about 200 copies which he sold or gave away, but it did not catch on.

Then in 1938, he had a better idea – inspired by the growing popularity of crosswords – and reinvented Lexico as a board game, which he called Criss Crosswords. The board has 225 squares and comes with 100 tiles, and as any muzhik (permissible Russian word meaning peasant – 24 points) knows, the idea is to make words from the letters on the tiles in the style of a crossword.

Before deciding what numerical value to give to each letter, Butts spent hours poring over the front pages of each day's New York Times. His cryptographic (28 points, but you need two turns) analysis was so good that his points system and tile distribution have not been altered in seven decades. The rack that holds seven tiles at a time also dates back to 1938.

Butts offered his new game to every established games manufacturer. They all turned it down. However, one of the hand-lettered sets that he had painstakingly made at home came into the hands of James Brunot, who decided after the war that it ought to be marketed. He changed the rules slightly, so that the game began in the middle of the board rather than the top left hand corner, and more importantly he altered the name to Scrabble (permissible – 14 points), which he registered as a trademark on 16 December 1948.

The next four years were a struggle. Brunot's company manufactured 2,400 Scrabble sets in 1949, assembling the parts on the living room of the Brunots' home in Connecticut, and lost $450 on the venture. But gradually, year by year, a buzz (would be worth 34 if there were a second "z", but you have to use a blank, so only 24) was created among devotees of the game. When the Brunots returned from a holiday in Kentucky in 1952, they found such a pile of orders waiting that their little factory could barely cope. Even Macy's, the world's biggest department store, wanted copies. By 1953, when orders exceeded 6,000 a week, the Brunots licensed Scrabble to one of the big established manufacturers which had previously rejected it.

Scrabble spread quickly (75 points, if all seven letters are off your rack) around the world. It arrived in the UK in 1953, launched by JW Spear and Sons, which holds the rights to Scrabble everywhere except the US and Canada. It was bought in 1994 by Mattel, the world's largest toy and game company. The US and Canadian rights are owned by Hasbro.

About 100 million Scrabble sets have been sold in 121 countries and 29 languages. More than 300 Scrabble clubs are registered in the UK alone.

The first world Scrabble championship was hosted in London in 1991, and has been held on alternate years ever since. By then, James Brunot was dead, but Alfred Butts lived to be 93, dying in April 1993. The 2007 world championship, held in Mumbai, was won by Nigel Richards, a New Zealander. The 2008 British Scrabble champion is Allan Simmons, from Berwickshire.

These tournaments are now played for big money, with all the tension and ego stroking of a major sport. Wespa, the World English-language Scrabble Players Association, is holding an inquiry into the eviction a week ago of the Bahrain and Gulf champion, Mohammed Zafar, from the Causeway Challenge in Malaysia, where players compete for a top prize of $10,000 (£6,700). The tournament organiser accused Mr Zafar of not following the rules when taking his tiles out of the bag; he insisted that he was holding the bag correctly.

You can buy the original Scrabble, Scramble Scrabble, Travel Scrabble, Pocket Scrabble, Junior Scrabble, My First Scrabble, Deluxe Scrabble, Dora Scrabble, and Simpsons Scrabble – and those are just the versions with a board. To settle arguments about which words are legal, an Official Scrabble Players' Dictionary and Official Tournament and Club Word List have been published.

There are also various computerised forms – but here a word of caution is needed. Earlier this month, Tonya Carrington from Lincoln bought a Nintendo version for her eight-year-old son, Ethan, hoping it would improve his vocabulary. She was so shocked when she tried it out for herself that she almost hyperventilated (It would take three goes, but it is 15 letters, the maximum possible, and worth three triple word scores on the edge of the board). The first shock came when her digital opponent laid down the word "tits". It helpfully supplied a definition with each word; this one was identified as the plural form of a word meaning "a garden bird".

Mrs Carrington might have let that pass if the machine had not gone and won the game with a seven letter word on a triple word score, containing four letters worth a mere point each, interspersed with three high scoring letters – an F worth 4, C worth 3, and K, worth 5, making an impressive 45. The machine defined it as "a slang word for chavs".

"I would have been horrified if Ethan had seen that word," said Mrs Carrington. "I was absolutely mortified. The worst thing is that there's an age rating of 3-plus on the box and no advisory warning about adult language on the packaging at all."

But despite the occasional jinx (18 points) that would give you asphyxy (75), Scrabble is surely a whizz (19) of a game, as zappy (21) as a zephyr (23) and jazzier (22) than bezique (77).

Scrabble crazy Famous fans

Barack Obama

According to the President-elect's communications director, Robert Gibbs: "It's his favourite game to play. He'll play with his family and particularly his sister. And the winner gets bragging rights for a long, long time."

Richard Nixon

Nixon is the only American President who regularly played Scrabble in the White House, though Bill and Hillary Clinton apparently also enjoy the occasional game.

Kylie Minogue

Whereas in the song "Your Disco Needs You", on her Light Years album, Kylie complains: "Desperately seeking someone willing to travel; You're lost in conversation and useless at Scrabble."

Mel Gibson

The German film director Roland Emmerich, who has worked with Gibson, said: "He's very accommodating. He is always on the set playing Scrabble in the back. When we need him, he drops his Scrabble pieces and comes running."

Queen Elizabeth II

HRH is widely reputed to beanother devotee of the game.


In the song "Seven Days", on his Ten Summoner's Tales album, you hear Sting sing: "IQ is no problem here; we won't be playing Scrabble for her hand, I fear."

Eddie Izzard

Describing a back ailment, the stand-up comic explained the distinction between a chiropractor and an osteopath, though he added: "Of course, they're both very powerful on the Scrabble board."

Vladimir Nabokov

The author of Lolita loved playing with words in different languages, and was one of the first celebrity Scrabble addicts. The main character in his novel Ada is an exceptionally good Scrabblep layer.

Spreading the word: 100m sold worldwide

*Some 100 million Scrabble sets in 29 different languages have been sold in 121 countries, making it the world's biggest-selling word game. The prototype was called Lexico, the brainchild of architect Alfred Mosher Butts, of New York State, who devised it after losing his job in the Depression. He worked out the letter values according to their frequency by combing the pages of The New York Times. It did not get copyright approval until 1948, when its name was changed to Scrabble.

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