Happy National Scrabble Day!
How did April 13 become this holiday? Well, it’s the birthday of Alfred Mosher Butts, creator of the game. It seems like as good a reason as any to create a special day for one of the most popular games of all time.
In fact, more than 150 million Scrabble sets have been sold, and the game is published in 121 countries and in at least 29 languages. Suffice it to say, wherever you go in the world, if you forget to pack your own set, you’ll probably be able to find one.
Today, Scrabble is a cultural icon but that wasn’t always the case. Butts, the creator, was an out-of-work architect during the Great Depression with time on his hands and a love of words and games. So, he decided to create a board game, and he was going to do it right. Butts analyzed the market and concluded that there were three types of games that were successful: number games (Bingo), strategy or move games (checkers, chess) and word games (anagrams). He combined all three types into a game first called Lexico (1931) and later renamed Criss Cross Words. The first games didn’t have a board and were played only with the tiles. However, he wanted to differentiate it from anagrams and introduce more complex game mechanics, so he created a 15-by-15-space board with special squares that added bonus points. These innovations made it unique and more challenging.
But what about that letter distribution? And how come we can never get an “S” when we need one? Butts studied the front page of The New York Times and calculated the frequency with which each letter was used. The more common the letter, the lower the point count. Butts ultimately settled on 100 tiles, including two blanks, which could be used as wild cards. As for that elusive “S,” he only included four so the game wouldn’t be too easy. His thinking was ingenious, and Scrabble was—and is—a masterpiece of game design. Yet for all his intelligence and planning, when he first launched the game, no one wanted to buy it. That is until Butts met James Brunot.
As a fellow entrepreneur, Brunot liked Butt’s game and bought it, granting Butts a royalty in perpetuity. Together they further refined the rules and dubbed it Scrabble, which means “to grope frantically, after the action of drawing the letter tiles.” The name was trademarked, was launched in 1948, but it didn’t sell.
So, how did Scrabble go from a game that no one wanted to a game that millions play? The popular story goes that in 1952, the president of Macy’s discovered the game while on vacation and ordered some for the store. Between word of mouth and people playing and getting others to play, within a year, it became a sensation. Butts lived to see his game become a phenomenon and watched it go through a series of manufacturers—Selchow & Righter, Milton Bradley, and, today, a staple of the Hasbro Games portfolio. It’s said that Butts loved playing his game right up until his death at 93 in 1993.
One of the wonderful things about Scrabble is that it can be played by people of all ages and all skill levels—and while it’s always great to win, it’s a great way to build vocabulary and learn new words, too. So get the family together and celebrate—though you don’t need a special day to enjoy a Scrabble game.