Yesterday (16th December) was the 70th anniversary of the much-loved ‘Scrabble’. This anniversary corresponds to when its inventor, James Brunot first received the Trademark for the game: December the 16th 1948. However, Scrabble actually has a longer history than this date would suggest.
In 1931, a draughtsman called Alfred Butts created a game called ‘Lexico’. Having been made redundant during the onset of the Great Depression, Butts wanted to create a game that could potentially tap into the recent craze of crosswords. In his game players had to use tiles to create words that would then score the player points depending on how they were placed. Butts then later developed this game into something called ‘Criss-crosswords’, which introduced a 15×15 game board for players to place their tiles on. He also introduced ‘premium’ tiles, which when utilised would grant the player double- and triple- letter and word scores.
Butts decided on the frequency and distribution of the letter tiles through analysing many newspaper articles and letters, and also got inspiration from the Edgar Allen Poe short story ‘The Gold Bug’ in which a man finds a treasure by solving a code based on how often each letter of the alphabet appears in the English language.
Despite his hard work Butts was unable to sell his game to a manufacturing company. However, in 1947 along came James Brunot, a social worker living in Connecticut who wanted to find a way out of the rat race and his four-hour daily commute. Brunot was a big fan of Criss-Crosswords and was convinced that it was his ticket to riches, so he bought the rights to manufacture the game from Butts, promising him a small royalty fee for each copy that was subsequently sold.
Before manufacturing the game, Brunot introduced two new rules: firstly, that the initial word that was played in a game (across the star in the centre of the board) would always be a double word score, and secondly, if any player managed to use all of their letters in one go then they would get a bonus of 50 points, a move that is referred to as a BINGO! He also renamed the game ‘Scrabble’ (a real word, which means to scratch, frantically) and successfully received the trademark for the name on December the 16th 1948, 70 years ago.
Initial sales of Scrabble were slow, with Brunot and his family producing the game in their living room, making a few dozen copies a week. In 1949 the Brunots made 2,400 sets and lost $450. Then, in 1952 the Brunots came back from a vacation to find that an order of 2,500 Scrabble sets had been placed in only one week, followed by another order for 3,000 the week after. One of the possible explanations for this was the rumour that the chairman of Macy’s department store, Jack Straus, had played the game while on vacation, and loved it so much that he thought that every family should have one, demanding that Macy’s start stocking it.
The Brunots had to move production to an old schoolhouse, but despite hiring 35 employees they could not keep up with the increased demand of 6,000 orders a week. So, in 1953 Brunot licensed the game’s production rights to the Long Island-based games manufacturer Selchow and Righter (interestingly this same company had originally turned down Alfred Butts’ Lexico). In only its second year with the company Scrabble sold six million copies, with stores across America selling out almost as soon as the orders arrived.
In 1971 Brunot eventually sold the North American rights to Selchow and Righter and the rest of the rights to Spears’ Games in London for more than a million dollars plus royalties, allowing him and his wife to retire in relative comfort. In North America the trademark and rights are now owned by Hasbro, whilst Mattel (who bought out Spear’s Games in 1994) own the rights in the rest of the world. Over 150 million copies of Scrabble have now been sold worldwide, across 121 countries, and in 31 different languages, and it is so popular that over half of British homes, and a third of American ones, now have a copy somewhere in the house.
With every new edition of Scrabble the Scrabble dictionary (which contains the official word list, and associated points for all ‘legal’ words in the game) gets updated. This year, for the seventieth anniversary new words that have been added include: facepalm (17 points) emoji (14 points), twerk (12 points), and perhaps most controversially of all: OK (6 points), which had previously been banned as a 2-letter word because it was considered to be an abbreviation of the word ‘okay’ and abbreviations (in addition to words that are always capitalised, prefixes, suffixes, and words that require a hyphen or an apostrophe) are not legal words.
The inclusion of these new words always seems to cause a minor amount of consternation, with people bemoaning the ‘direction’ in which the English language is headed. However, it is this willingness to embrace language that is part of why Scrabble has held its appeal and why it never feels outdated. Similar dismay was no doubt expressed in the 1950s when words such as ‘frisbee’ and ‘stereo’ were legalised; words which today seem positively lacklustre.
Another reason for Scrabble’s popularity is the ease with which it can be learnt; providing that players have a reasonable grasp of English (or whatever other language they are playing the game in) they can pick up the rules in a couple of minutes. The low price point of around £20 also makes Scrabble an ideal ‘gateway’ game, whilst its association with crosswords and word play mean that many people who would otherwise consider games to be ‘childish’ are happy to sit down around the table.
In terms of generating a high score in Scrabble (most ‘experts’ tend to post over 300 points per game), the conventional wisdom is that you should memorise the two- and three-letter words and make use of the premium tiles. BINGO words (such as ‘jukebox’ and ‘squeeze’) and words which use up four or more vowels (such as ‘aerie’ – the nest of a bird of prey, or ‘arancini’ – a stuffed rice ball from Italy) are also useful for racking up high scores and getting rid of letters, respectively. And whilst there is some debate over the highest possible scoring word (as calculating this depends on words that are already hypothetically in play), the best possible starting word is ‘muzjiks’. Used by the Tsars to refer to the Russian peasantry, this word is normally worth 29 points, but placing the ‘z’ (worth 10 points) on the double-letter tile increases this to 39; the use of the star in the centre of the board doubles this to 78 and the fact that it is a BINGO word gives you a bonus of 50, making 128 points in total, and placing you well on track for an expert score.
From its humble beginning in the Great Depression through to its current state of global ubiquity, Scrabble is a game that in many ways appears timeless. And with the cold winter nights drawing in, there really is no better time to gather a group of loved ones and debate the validity of the word ‘za’ (noun, abbreviation for pizza, 11 points).