A Brief History of Scrabble: In Celebration of the VWF’s Book Sale Spectacular

Ah, the illustrious game of Scrabble: vocabulary developer, evening entertainer, family splitter. Who hasn’t cast a side-eye at a friend with the perfect two-letter word, or reached for the rule-book when a loved one breaks a triple letter score with a questionable verb?

For those who love the game, it feels like a long-standing part of family life and the bibliphile’s world. In fact, it was first invented in 1938, by Alfred Mosher Butts. Incidentally, for those wishing to use the name within the game but cautious to use a proper noun (which, as we know, is forbidden), “to scrabble” means “to scratch frantically.”

Here are a few considerations in advance of frequenting our tables this Sunday:

  • The letter scores are based on the frequency of letters in English words, which Butts discovered by counting letters on the front page of The New York Times.
  • The game—and Butts—struggled in the first years of conception but, by 1952, hundreds of stores carried the game, not least because the head of Macy’s played it on holiday and placed a large order following.
  • In fact, copies of the game were made by hand until the Macy’s sale!
  • Now, of course, rules and variations abound! We may lose sight of this within collegial game plays, but a successful challenge to a word requires the misguided player to remove their tiles from the board, and forfeit their turn. Certain countries make use of the “Single Challenge”—where the offending player doesn’t lose their turn. New Zealand, Kenya and Malaysia are some of those countries. Canada is not.
  • If you’re looking for a quick way to gain points, two letter words are an effective way to rid yourself of pesky consonants. The highest-scoring of these are “za”—an accepted short-form of pizza, worth 11 points—and “xu”—a form of currency in Vietnam, and worth 9 points.
  • And don’t forget the power of “S”: by adding an “S” to a word to pluralize it you not only get points for that word but can begin another beginning with the same letter.
  • Particularly ambitious players may want to keep the world’s highest score in mind during games. Michael Cresta, a carpenter from Lexington, Massachusetts, scored a tile-flying 830 points in the highest-scoring game of all time (his opponent scored 490).

Try your hand at one of our Scrabble tables at the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Book Sale Spectacular this Sunday, June 2 from 11am – 4pm.


Lauren Dembicky