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From Lexiko to ESPN

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The gentle Scrabble games that take place in family dens across the country are probably what was intended by the game's inventor Alfred Mosher Butts, who conceived of Scrabble in the early 1930s as a social pastime.

Back then, Butts called his invention Lexiko, but the genesis of present-day Scrabble lies in Butts' curiosity about the mathematics of words and his love of games. He created a prototype consisting of a board with a grid pattern and 100 wooden tiles with letters printed on them. Butts devised the concentration of lettered tiles according to the ratio of how often letters appear in the English language. For example, there are more tiles marked E than Q in Scrabble. Butts figured out these ratios by studying newspapers and writing down how many times the letter A appeared, and then the letter B, and so on. His research went on for years. He had lost his job as an architect, so he filled his time perfecting his game in quiet isolation, compiling reams of cards and notes, each carefully penciled over with letters and words, words and letters, and then more letters and words.

Butts sold a few games by mail order but never did make much money at it. He couldn't seem to interest any of the large manufacturers. Eventually, Butts sold a portion of his rights to the game to James Brunot, who re-named it Scrabble and did a slightly better marketing job than Butts. Scrabble eventually went to corporate ownership with Selchow & Righter, who then sold it to Coleco. Finally, the game arrived in the hands of its present owner, Hasbro, where Scrabble now enjoys great prominence with North American sales of a couple million sets each year.

Most of those sets go to mild-mannered, non-tournament Scrabblers. Yet each year, thousands are snatched up by competitive players, 850 of whom are descending in New Orleans this week.

"Be warned! We are a bizarre group," says John Williams, executive director of the National Scrabble Association, which governs official tournament Scrabble in partnership with Hasbro. Williams' warning pertains to the upcoming National Scrabble Championship, which takes place in New Orleans on July 31-Aug. 5. He says that New Orleans can expect to see clots of squinty-eyed Scrabblers, walking around town, compulsively anagramming street names. On Aug. 4, a hundred players are expected to fill the lanes at Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl. But don't worry too much, Williams adds, the Scrabblers will be spending at least 12 hours a day safely tucked indoors at the New Orleans Marriott, the site of the tournament.

Every other year, the national championship brings together Scrabble greats and near greats who range in skill level from "recreational" to "expert." Cash prizes range from $100 for the lower division competitions to $25,000, which will go to the expert player with the highest rating at the end of this grueling five-day, 30-round tournament that culminates in a best-of-five match between the two top-rated players.

The national championship has gained notoriety from Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo's new film Word Wars and Stephen Fatsis' 2001 book Word Freak, which has been optioned for a movie by director Curtis Hanson. Scrabble's reputation for intense competition has also attracted the attention of ESPN. For the first time, the cable sports network will film the NSA national championship best-of-five match.

Alfred Butts died in 1993, at the age of 93. Though he received relatively little profit from his invention, present-day Scrabble is inculcated with his spirit. Playing the game infects players with Butts' own persistent desire to seek an ever more refined grasp of small things. It took an obsessive personality to create Scrabble, and it takes an obsessive personality to play it well. -- Adler

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