Saturday, May 9, 2009

Scrabble creator

I joined a Scrabble group in the senior community where I am living and I thought I was in trouble when the first person to sit at my table said, "I haven't played this game in 40 years!" But Scrabble is fun, no matter the level of play, and remains my favorite game. It was the ingenious creation of an out-of-work architect named Alfred Mosher Butts (1899-1993) during the Depression. He surveyed the popular pastimes of the day and decided to create a board game of both skill and chance that combined anagrams and crossword puzzles. He analyzed the front page of the New York Times to perfect the frequency of the letters on the tiles - limiting the S so that making plurals would not be too easy.
Butts sold the rights to James Brunot, who trademarked the game and changed the name from "Criss Cross Words" to "Scrabble." He and his wife converted an abandoned Connecticut schoolhouse into a Scrabble factory, making 2,400 sets - and losing $450 - in 1949. But by 1952, the Brunos could no longer keep up with the demand and licensed the game to Selchow & Righter. Hasbro now owns the trademark in the U.S. and Canada (and also now owns Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, who had declined to purchase the rights back in the 1940s), and a subsidiary of Mattel owns it in the rest of the world. Today Scrabble sells at a rate of 1-2 million sets per year in North America, and a total of more than 150 million games have been sold worldwide. It can be found in 1 of every 3 American homes and is available in French, Spanish, travel, deluxe turntable, and junior editions. (I got a new Diamond Edition Scrabble for Christmas!)
There are Scrabble clubs and tournaments that are sanctioned by a national association. The National Scrabble championship is held annually in the U.S. and the World Championship is a biennial event. A look inside the world of competitive Scrabble by Stefan Fatsis makes for interesting reading, and for your listening pleasure, an interview on NPR, which also features a short video of the inventor. As for Alfred Butts, he earned royalties of about 3¢ per game for many years. "One-third went to taxes," he said. "I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life." He lived to the age of 93 and is buried in Stanfordville, New York. His New York Times obituary reads in part, "Mrs. Butts was better at the game than her inventor spouse. Once she scored 234 for 'quixotic.' He admitted that she 'beat me at my own game,' literally."

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