Wordstock Nation

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.

A hundred million sets, 10 billion tiles and umpteen zillion arguments over what constitutes an acceptable word later, Scrabble continues to maintain its mysterious strangle hold over the world's recreational vocabulary.

But for the game's most ardent fans, the lazy hazy days of covering a board with prosaic terms like "horn," "farm," "paste" and "mob" (the sample words that still appear in Scrabble's instructions) are as archaic as "taenaie," a vowel-y bingo meaning "ancient Grecian headband." Studying boards with the Zenlike concentration of chess champions, some of the high-ranked players are already mentally contemplating possible plays and blocks three turns down the road.

"The more you play, the better you get," explains Barbara Van Alen, a longtime Scrabbleholic who carries around a snapshot of her most spectacular play ever--the 13-letter word UNFAMILIARITY snaking vertically through six horizontal words. "There's not a night I play that I don't learn at least one new word," says Van Alen, one of the few people in town who can boast that she's played Scrabble atop Camelback Mountain.

Like most of her fellow members, the Gilbert comptroller was originally a casual player whose growing enthusiasm for the game made it increasingly difficult to find competitive opponents. In 1983, an informal gathering of like-minded players began meeting in Van Alen's house. When that group became too large for her home, the club moved to an adult center, then a motel convention room and a variety of other public locations before finally settling at Bookstar, its home for the past four months.

If you happen to be strolling through one of the bookstores on Scrabble night, it's hard to miss these rabid rack-onteurs. Although there's little physical commonality (members show up wearing everything from workout clothes to fresh-from-the-office business attire), they're the ones lugging customized swivel boards in padded cases, embroidery-covered dictionaries and the two-faced timepieces with dual stop/start buttons like those used in chess tournaments. In case you're still in doubt, they may be the only ones in the whole store who, when the letters "aa" are mentioned, immediately think of basaltic lava instead of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Then again, maybe not.

"I DON'T KNOW THE MEANING OF THE WORD 'DEFEAT'," reads the front of a tee shirt sold at some regional Scrabble tournaments like the one held at Encanto Park last month. Then, on the back: " . . . OR ANY OF THE OTHER WORDS IN THE OFFICIAL SCRABBLE WORD LIST EITHER."

Referring to the glut of unfamiliar two- and three-letter words that are essential to competitive Scrabbling, one player confesses, "A lot of us have no idea what most of these obscure words mean. I do know that they won't let us use 'da' anymore, which sure hasn't helped my game any."

"They" are the members of the National Scrabble Association, a board of experts who determine which words are--and are not-- acceptable in club and tournament play. Explaining that language is in constant flux, board member Joe Edley says the Official Scrabble Word List (or OWL, as it's known in Scrabble parlance) will be revised periodically to reflect changes as they appear in several specific dictionaries used as word authorities.

The definitionless list--which contains the "f" word, the "n" word and the "s" word, as well as all words to which the prefix "re" and suffix "er" can be appended--is an offshoot of the far more conservative Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

First published in 1978 so that serious players had a universal source book, the original Scrabble dictionary was replete with all manner of creative vulgarities and racial slurs. But bowing to PC pressure--and a desire to get Scrabble into classrooms as an educational tool--the tome, over the years, has been systematically laundered of any terms that are even vaguely offensive.

In order to appease diehard players--one local wag quips "I don't come here to make friends; I come to make words"--the company compromised by making the OWL available by mail only to registered players.

"I still don't see why we can't use 'abo' anymore," carps one player, referring to a pejorative term for "aborigines" deleted from OWL last year. "I mean, we're playing Scrabble in Bookstar in Mesa, Arizona. How many aborigines are we going to offend out here?"

Although these Scrabble sessions may strike a novice as daunting--and they are--all comers are welcome and inexperienced players are matched with opponents of similar skill levels. In fact, greenhorns are even furnished with crib sheets, which they are free to consult during play, listing all acceptable two- and three-letters words.

But sit down to your first game at Phoenix Club 123 and the first thing a brave neophyte will notice is that the engraved wooden Scrabble tiles everyone's familiar with have been replaced with smooth plastic ones--a precaution that prevents devious players from trying to feel the much-coveted blanks as they pull tiles from the bag.

The second thing he'll notice--besides the fact that he's being soundly trounced--is that he's receiving a crash course in Scrabble as a second language.

There's "rack management"--the process of segregating letters on the rack into vowels and consonants in hopes of eventually scoring a seven-letter bingo. (Note to newcomers: If your rack seems longer than the ones in your set at home, it probably is; the pros claim the custom, elongated model makes it easier to move tiles around.)

"Vowel drops?" Those are the vowel-heavy words like "aioli" (garlic mayonnaise) that help empty "a, e, i, o, u"-laden racks.

"Fishing" is slang for the ill-advised practice of tossing a tile back into the sack in hopes of drawing a specific letter needed to flesh out a bingo. A "triple-triple," meanwhile, is one of those once-in-a-lifetime plays that spans two triple-word scores at once for a point total multiplied by nine.

And "phoneys" are just what they sound like--nonwords played like poker bluffs which may or may not be challenged off the board.

At the end of the game--each of which is played one-on-one, to minimize the luck factor--don't be surprised when someone whips out a "tile catcher," a "Hints From Heloise"-esque nylon net invention used to whisk tiles from their plastic grid before being siphoned back into a velvet smiley-face sack.

During breaks between games, several players kill time in the bookstore's word game section, testing each other's anagram acumen with a compilation of "Jumble" puzzles. Sarah King, a young Filipino woman who took up the game to improve her English, talks about the latest addition to her living room Scrabble shrine, a collection of various sets which includes a gold-plated Franklin Mint commemorative edition. Harold Ripkin, a stained-glass craftsman, jokes that his wife, an English teacher, doesn't come to club meetings anymore because she "doesn't like being beaten by a truck driver."

Also conspicuous by their absence tonight are the elderly woman who once stalked off in the middle of a game after an opponent played the word "asshole," as well as the hotheaded loser who backed over his Scrabble kit with his van after a bad night at the board.

There are Scrabble players and then there are Scrabble players, many of whom regularly score in the 350-point range.

"I see people studying their lists and dictionaries during their lunch breaks, and I feel sorry for them because they just can't relax," says May Haney, a longtime player who heads up a Mesa club. "I feel that Scrabble is a fun thing, and if I have to work at, it's no longer fun."

Haney would certainly get an argument from Larry Rand, arguably the most tenacious player in the Valley, if Rand had time to debate the point amidst his Scrabble-intensive schedule.

A retired salesman, the youthful-looking grandfather didn't even begin playing Scrabble seriously until about three years ago. That was when Rand, then a competitive runner, was diagnosed with bone-marrow cancer. No longer able to physically exert himself, he refocused his energy on mental pursuits and is currently the second-highest-ranked player in the Phoenix club.

When not using his marketing background to help publicize the club (membership, once perceived as a "bunch of little old ladies," has reportedly quadrupled in recent years), Rand spends hours improving his game. He spent three years anagraming seven-letter words on 10,000 eight by ten file cards. Using annotated score sheets from club matches, Rand, who's parlayed his syllabic savvy into a Wheel of Fortune appearance, even replays past games to see if he could have bettered his score.

And when he can't find a human competitor, he'll often sit down and play against a Scrabble computer--a controversial softwear program that some experts insist doesn't play fair, ostensibly since it not only picks out opponent's racks but also knows which letters are outstanding at any given time.

Win or lose, Rand feels he's a better person for playing Scrabble. "I believe my body is getting some very positive chemicals from all that stimulation that's helping me deal with my illness," he says.

As the evening's fourth game winds down, the conversation turns to what may be the biggest thing to affect the game since the Scrabble association sanctioned its unexpurgated word list: Rumor has it that the next OWL update will include the word "za"--frat-house slang for "pizza."

While that news might not shake the non-Scrabble playing world, some fans of the game see it as the biggest puzzlement since Y2K. Will the newly acceptable "za" have a domino effect that will forever change the face of the game?

Some players shrug it off; if they can live without "da," they can certainly handle "za." Others, however, argue that the move will trivialize what is now one of the two most valuable numbered tiles in the game, and that suddenly being stuck with a "z" during your last play will no longer be the kiss of death it once was.

Ultimately the debate boils down to one burning question: Can you really have your "za"--and play it too?

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: dwebb@newtimes.com


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