Scrabble players who have suffered the 10-point burden of a Q without a U often hope to make the word qi, an alternate—and acceptable—spelling of chi. Those lucky enough to draw an I undoubtedly fill with that very “life energy.” Indeed, the world’s favorite crossword game seems to possess its own qi. Scrabble’s history—encompassing a down-on-his-luck inventor, a wartime cipher and cutthroat competitors—is, in a word, ineffable (17 points).
In 1931 architect Alfred Mosher Butts reached his nadir. Like many Americans during the Great Depression, he had lost his job. With a sudden glut of free time (“I wasn’t doing anything,” he said), Butts decided to design a parlor game. He methodically grouped the popular games of the day into three categories: board games with movable pieces, such as chess and checkers; number games that used cards and dice; and finally, word games, of which Butts noticed a dearth of exemplars. In fact, crosswords and anagrams seemed to be the only successful games in their class. Crosswords offer a solitary experience, while the objective of anagrams is to “steal” words from other players—perhaps not the most uplifting games during the Depression. Thinking he might have landed on a market opportunity, Butts created Lexiko, after the Greek lexicos (“words”).
Butts began offering Lexiko in 1933. The game consisted of 100 letters embossed on tiles, and the goal was to make as many nine- or 10-letter words as possible. By August 1934 he had sold 84 sets at $1.50 a pop—leaving him with $20 less than he had invested in supplies. Butts decided Lexiko was missing something: a board.
“The Gold-Bug,” Edgar Allan Poe’s tale featuring a complex cipher (a way to encrypt text), has inspired a great deal of wordplay.
A young Russian American, William Friedman, read the short story and fell in love with cryptography. When World War II broke out, nobody seemed to speak the same language. For that matter, countries declined to use even their native languages, electing instead to garble their cables with various ciphers for everyone except the intended recipients. While the Americans communicated in “SIGABA,” Germans spoke in “Enigma” and Japanese in “Purple.” Friedman was charged with untangling all the gobbledygook. When he cracked Purple, the Americans learned of an impending German invasion of Russia and sent a warning. Friedman’s code breaking had turned the tides of the war.
Alfred Butts also had an epiphany while reading “The Gold-Bug,” and although he didn’t prevent any Nazi invasions, he did discover a pivotal component of word games. Poe’s cipher involves symbols corresponding to the alphabet. The puzzle’s key is the distribution of letters: E, for instance, occurs much more frequently in English than W. When doling out letters, Butts realized, there should be a lot more Es than Ws.
By 1938 things were looking up for Alfred Butts. He’d spent several unemployed years hawking his word game, Lexiko, but companies such as Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley had refused to buy the rights. After being rehired as an architect and enjoying newfound financial stability, Butts decided to start over. For his next foray, christened Criss-Cross Words, he kept the lettered tiles but added a crucial element: the board. Players were required to connect their words to other words already in place. After meticulously studying the 12,802 letters in some 2,412 words, Butts decided a square 15-by-15-inch grid was the ideal size to accommodate all 100 letter tiles and words of average length. He added special squares that would double or triple the point value of a letter or word. And for the better part of a decade, he sold Criss-Cross Words out of his home for $2 a game.
In 1947, when Butts was on his last legs with Criss-Cross Words, budding entrepreneur James Brunot offered to manufacture the game. Brunot renamed it Scrabble, meaning, “to scrawl or scribble, or to scratch or grope around clumsily or frantically.” The new moniker spelled success.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” Alfred Butts’s inspiration for Scrabble, a pair of treasure seekers breaks a cipher and finds Captain Kidd’s trove worth $1.5 million. Butts may have struck gold with the idea of Scrabble, but he certainly didn’t rake in booty fit for a pirate. His business partner, James Brunot, gave Butts only a small royalty, claiming the game held little financial potential. Butts got two and a half cents, compared to Brunot’s 12 cents, for every Scrabble set they peddled. In 1971 Brunot sold the Scrabble royalties (with Butts’s reluctant consent) to game manufacturer Selchow and Righter. Brunot got $1.3 million, while Butts received $265,000, a sum unworthy of one of the most popular board games of all time. Alfred Butts tried to repeat his success with Alfred’s Other Game—a strange combination of Scrabble and solitaire. It was released in 1985 to little notice.
Today, goldbug describes a person who obsessively invests in the gold standard, or one who is just plain greedy. Brunot could be called a “goldbug.” The modest, methodical Alfred Butts, however, was simply a “wordbug”—one who may have been heartened to know that goldbug is an acceptable play in Scrabble.
In July 2009 Scrabble went digital in the form of Words With Friends, a crossword game created by brothers Paul and David Bettner. Through their small development company, Newtoy, the Bettners released Words With Friends as a free application for the iPhone. In little more than a year Newtoy was sold to Farmville creator Zynga for $53 million. The wildly successful game is now available for Facebook, Kindle, iPad and other platforms.
Words With Friends, though in no way affiliated with Scrabble, is nearly identical to Alfred Butts’s invention. Some exceptions: Words With Friends uses a modified scoring system, adheres to a different dictionary and has four more tiles than Scrabble’s 100. Besides those and a built-in chat function, it’s the same game. The Bettner brothers’ app is so popular that Hasbro, Scrabble’s current owner, brought out their own official computerized version. But at $19.95 and with no interactive online play, electronic Scrabble could not compete. Words With Friends, after all, is addictive. Case in point: While on an airplane in 2011, actor Alec Baldwin infamously kept playing Words With Friends even after the pilot had ordered passengers to turn off their electronics. Baldwin was kicked off the flight.
As Scrabble exploded in popularity, the rules tightened and professional players came out of the woodwork. In 1978 The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary was published to weed out those who might euphemistically describe their play as “creative.” Now players can quickly reference the official lexicon to challenge and refute nifty neologisms and pidgin scrap-words. The same year marked the first National Scrabble Championship; there were 68 entrants, and the grand prize was $1,500.
By 2004, when the movie Word Wars: Tiles and Tribulations on the Scrabble Circuit was released, the contest’s entrants numbered 837 and the prize had grown to $25,000. The documentary follows a group of tournament players, but just because this is regulation Scrabble play, do not imagine that squabbles over the validity of words vanish. If anything, the tension and drama of each match ratchet up to the breaking point. In the film, Scrabble player (and stand-up comic) Matt Graham uses the phony word bemeant against his friend and competitor Marlon Hill, who does not challenge the word. After losing the game, Hill laments the whole “bemeanted” affair, venting to the camera, “It has no goddamned business being a word.”
The second entry for scrabble in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a confused struggle, a ‘free-for-all.’” Indeed, a game of Scrabble can truly wind up as a logomachy—an argument about words. Word Wars presents a cast of veteran lexi-warriors entrenched in a bitter battle for the 2002 National Scrabble Championship. They play in parks, sling trash talk (“Wanna wear a skirt, what’d you come to the bar for?”) and go by noms de guerre. Joel Sherman, for example, calls himself “G.I.” Joel, a pun on his name and his gastrointestinal reflux. But for all their growl, the Scrabble-ites play by an honor code. Which is why, when a player palmed two blank tiles during the 2012 tournament, a veil of humiliation fell upon the Scrabble world.
Many hard-core Scrabble players believe Words With Friends, the app sensation, encourages users to cheat. For instance, players are not penalized for misspellings or “phonies”; they can simply punch in different letter combinations until the game accepts a word. This, of course, is a boon to those suffering from lethologica (17 Scrabble points). Better grab your dictionary! Or, as Words With Friends players do midgame, just look it up on the internet.