Wordstock Nation

Valley Scrabble fanatics rack havoc with America's favorite word game

The inventor of the granddaddy of all word games was a man by the name of Butts.

Maybe that's why hard-core Scrabble aficionados have such a healthy respect for double entendres--and particularly those that cross triple-word squares.

"Nice rack," mutters one player as he looks over a fellow player's shoulder.
"Thanks--and these letters aren't bad, either," quips his nicely racked colleague as she rearranges her tiles in search of a bingo--a seven-letter word that could earn her a 50-point bonus.

Meanwhile, across the room, another Scrabblephile jokingly wonders aloud whether she can use the last letter on her rack--an otherwise unplayable "u"--to form "frigum."

Informed that the term isn't an acceptable Scrabble word, she shrugs and removes the letter from the board. "Well, frigum, then," she mutters good-naturedly. "If that word isn't acceptable, it should be."

Lest anyone think they've stumbled into some sort of highbrow smut fest, a firm command from another table provides a stern reminder that this is, after all, a serious meeting of the National Scrabble Club 123.

"Quiet!" The order comes from a player intently hunched over a board covered with words like "eo," "gopht," "darioles" and other obscure--but perfectly acceptable--plays that, to the untrained eye, look like the work of a drunken typist. "Some of us are still playing."

Welcome to the world of cutthroat Scrabble, a parallel playing field both worlds--and words--away from the kitchen-table variety of the game that has made the pastime an American classic. Now celebrating its 50th birthday, Scrabble is the second most popular game in the world (Monopoly's first); Hasbro, the current manufacturer, boasts that the game can be found in one out of three households.

But the odds of finding a player as committed as the 45 active members of Phoenix's Club 123--one of several hundred similar clubs nationwide--are considerably higher. How many people are so hooked on the game that they sport Scrabble jewelry? Pore over dictionaries in which words are listed in backward alphabetical order? Book passage on vacation Scrabble cruises? And, in at least one legendary case, become so incensed over bad letters that they actually ingest a tile?

Erudite, earthy and etymologically edgy, these dedicated jargon junkies regularly travel from the four corners of the Valley to wage the war of the words. On a recent Wednesday night, 20-some club members convened at Bookstar on East Camelback for a weekly four-game marathon. (Another four-hour session is held at the store's Mesa branch on Monday nights.) Several players regularly drive in from as far away as Chandler and Gilbert; another fresh arrival to the Bookstar klatsch has just made a 45-minute trek from Sun City in rush-hour traffic.

"Thank God I heard about this place," says Pam Major, a new member, who, as someone later points out, is the only member in the Phoenix club whose first and last names are both acceptable Scrabble terms. (FYI, "pam" is unabridged dictionary-ese for "jack of clubs.")

"Scrabble's the only thing that's kept me sane," reports Major; during a hasty relocation from Oregon a few months ago, she left everything behind but her clothes and her Scrabble board. "When anyone asks me my religion, I just say I worship Our Lady of the Triple-Word Score."

Major may be joking, but it'd be hard to find a group of Scrabble players who take the game more seriously. While discussing a recent news story about an ad for a Connecticut department store that depicted a couple of boys sitting around a Scrabble board that included the word "rape," one club member seriously contends that one of the kids might actually have meant the synonym for an Eurasian shrub.

Alternative verbiage for sexual assault and/or exotic botany were probably the furthest things from Alfred M. Butts' mind when he set out to create what would ultimately become the last word in word games.

Unable to find work during the Depression, the Poughkeepsie, New York, architect decided the world was ready for a board game that would somehow combine anagrams and crossword, while simultaneously striking a balance between skill and luck. To that end, he laboriously tabulated English-language letter frequency charts by scouring front page stories in the New York Times.

Having established that "e" is the most used letter and "q" and "z" the least, Butts spent several months fine-tuning his brainchild--reconfiguring the grid, changing point values, relocating bonus score squares and streamlining the rules.

Although prototype versions of the game (alternately known as Criss Cross Words and Lexiko) were popular with all who played them, Butts was unable to interest anyone in mass-producing what would eventually be dubbed Scrabble until 1948. The familiar maroon-boxed sets were originally manufactured by a small mom-and-pop outfit--friends of Butts--working out of an old New England schoolhouse. But inexplicably, the game's popularity soared, and the fledgling company couldn't begin to keep pace with orders.

Four years later, rights were sold to Selchow & Righter, a toy company then best known as the manufacturer of Parchesi.

By 1953, Butts' creation had become so popular that not even the Parchesi czars could keep up with demand. The $3 sets were rationed geographically and many would-be buyers were forced to put their names on waiting lists. A craze that seemingly cut across all socioeconomic borders, Scrabble prompted Time magazine to credit its huge following to the fact that it appealed to "everyone old enough to spell and still not too feeble to lift the tiles." A national touchstone, Scrabble has since been immortalized in episodes of Seinfeld and Dilbert; the game even provided the biggest laughs in the Goldie Hawn comedy Foul Play as two spinsterish players bickered over whether a 12-letter obscenity beginning with "m" was hyphenated.

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