The presence of cable sports network ESPN's cameras during this year's National Scrabble Championship will mean at least one significant difference for players: according to NSA director of clubs and tournaments Joe Edley, they won't be able to play any of the 150 words deemed "offensive," such as racial epithets or words from the vernacular having to do with excrement or sex.
The "offensive words" controversy dates to 1994, when Hasbro, the parent company of Scrabble manufacturer Milton Bradley, announced it would delete more than 100 words from the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD). This move came in response to protests from groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, which objected to the listing of the word "jew" as a verb. In addition to the usual "f-word" and "c-word" suspects, other reported outlaws are f-words and c-words such as F A T S O and C R A P P E R, as well as terms such as B O O B I E, T U R D, R E D N E C K and P O P I S H. (An unofficial list can be found online at www.home.teleport.com/~stevena/scrabble/expurg.html).
Though the NSA has bowed to the exigencies of TV for this tournament, most Scrabblers themselves never had a problem with playing these words. In fact, they lobbied strongly to keep them in the Official Word List for tournament play. The controversy was settled when Hasbro agreed that NSA could maintain a tournament dictionary that would include words removed from the dictionary used by "recreational" players.
"Players felt this was a First Amendment issue. Because it pertains to their freedom of speech. Words don't offend people. People offend people," says Edley.
While Edley's defense of Scrabblers' constitutional rights is certainly admirable, it's far more likely that the furor erupted because Scrabblers just don't like having words taken away from them. Fewer words mean fewer options for winning a game. Furthermore, Scrabblers are not offended by offensive words because they don't care what the words mean.
"Oh, absolutely, meanings are meaningless," agrees NSA executive director John Williams. He goes on to say that at the highest levels, Scrabble demands a great deal more mathematical skill than verbal. Experts become expert by having good spatial thinking, always visualizing the geography of the board. A great player can calculate quickly the mathematical probabilities of which letters and word options are available, both to increase their own points and to block their opponents' words, as more tiles go from the bag to the board.
"Words and letters are mere objects to the expert player. Just pieces to play," says Edley. If you are the poetic type who loves language for its expressive quality, you will never amount to much in competitive Scrabble. Reveling in the beauty of words is both unnecessary and time consuming. Serious Scrabblers devote all their time to memorizing word lists and practicing anagrams. "You have a limited amount of time on this planet to study," says Edley. "So you should not use it to learn meanings of words." -- Adler