Saturday, August 23, 2008

Scrabble's 60th Anniversary

Scrabble has to be one of the most popular board games of all time. I rather suspect that it is the most popular word game of all time. It is estimated one million Scrabble sets have been sold worldwide. It is also estimated that a Scrabble set is found in one out of every three American homes. It is sold in 121 countries and in 29 different languages. This year Scrabble celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Scrabble's roots actually go all the way back to 1938. It was in 1938 that Alfred Mosher Butts, an out of work architect, set out to invent a board game. He decided upon a word game based roughly upon crossword puzzles. In formulating the game, he studied the frequency of letters in the English language. Initially called Lexico, Butts settled upon the name "Criss-Crosswords." Butts tried selling the game to major game makers, but failed. He did manufacture a few of the games himself.

It was in 1948 that James Brunot, who had owned one of the original Criss-Crosswords games, bought the rights to Criss-Crosswords, giving Butts a royalty on every set sold. Brunot left most of the game unchanged, although he did simplify the rules and rearranged the premium squares on the board. Brunot changed the name of the game to "Scrabble," a word meaning "to scratch frantically." It was in 1949 that Brunot's family starting manufacturing sets.

Scrabble would receive its big break in 1952 when the game came to the attention of Jack Strauss, president of Macy's, while he was on vacation. Strauss ordered several sets to be sold at Macy's. It was not long before Scrabble reached the level of a fad, with sales so strong that sets actually had to be rationed to stores. The Brunot family soon realised they could not keep up with demand and sold manufacturing rights to Selchow and Righter.

Over the years the rules of the game have changed slightly. In 1953 it was clarified that words could be created using letters already on the board and that one could create a word parallel and immediately adjacent to an existing word as long as all crosswords created were valid. In 1976 it was clarified that blank tile beats an A when drawing to see who goes first and it was established that a player could pass his turn.

Scrabble would also change ownership over the years. Having manufactured the game for nearly twenty years, Selchow and Righter bought the trademark in 1972. In 1986 Selchow and Righter sold the rights to the game to Coleco. Coleco would declare bankruptcy in 1989, its properties being bought by Hasbro. Currently Scrabble is manufactured by Parker Brothers, which was bought by Hasbro in 1991.

As one of the most popular board games of all time, Scrabble would have a large impact on pop culture. A game show based on the game, called Scrabble, aired on NBC daytime from July 1984 to March 1990. It had a second run from January 1993 to June 1993. It was hosted by Chuck Woolery.

Beyond the game show, Scrabble has also been frequently mentioned on TV shows and in movies. In fact, one of the earliest references to Scrabble was in a 1954 episode of I Love Lucy. It would also be mentioned on such varied American and British TV shows as Steptoe and Son, The Critic, The Simpsons, Red Dwarf, Friends, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Seinfeld, and The Sopranos. Scrabble has also been mentioned in various movies. The game appeared in the movie Foul Play and played an important part in the movie Sneakers (which centres around a top secret device to decrypt codes). It was also mentioned in the movies Rosemary's Baby, Black Hawk Down, and Charlie's Angels. The documentary Word Wars centred on Scrabble tournaments.

The first official Scrabble tournaments arose in the United States in the mid-Seventies, with the first National Scrabble Championship being held in 1978. The first World Scrabble Championship was held in 1991. There are also several Scrabble clubs worldwide.

There have also been several computer and video game versions of Scrabble over the years. The first Scrabble programme may have been one created by Stuart Shapiro and Howard Smith in 1977. Since then versions of Scrabble have been released for many different platforms, including PC, Commodore 65, Amiga, Mac, Nintendo DS, PlayStation, and Game Boy, among others.

Scrabble has been manufactured for sixty and has remained one of the most popular board games for most of that time. It has faithful players across the world, some who are absolutely fanatical about the game. Growing up, my brother and I enjoyed several hours of playing Scrabble. There can be little doubt that it will continue going strong for another sixty years.

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