Scrabble Wars


Jan 22, 2015 by James

Think of Scrabble and what comes to mind? Earnest intellectual types trying to out-manoeuvre each other in a game of skill and knowledge? Your least appreciated Christmas present? Boredom? Well, it may be time to think again. In Australia, a dispute about Scrabble has reached such levels of drama that it has ended up in court.

In a row described by the competitor's lawyer as leaving Scrabble resembling “a blood sport”, Mohammed Hegazi found himself suspended for a year by his local chapter of the Australian Scrabble Players' Association, amid accusations that he had bullied other competitors and been guilty of unprofessional conduct. Hegazi returned to competition when the year was up, but set out to prove his innocence, eventually taking the matter to a state court. After much wrangling, the Victoria State Magistrates Court ordered the Association to overturn its ruling, although Hegazi also had to pay costs of AUS$3,000.


Long history

All of this drama is far removed from most people's idea of the popular word game. Scrabble was born of the American Depression, when unemployed architect Alfred Mosher Butts of Poughkeepsie, New York, set out to invent a board game. Butts took his task very seriously, making painstaking studies of letter frequency by analysing the text of newspapers such as the New York Times. However, his game, which was called first Lexico and then Criss Cross Words, was rejected by manufacturers.

Things changed when Butts was approached by, and began to work with, entrepreneur James Brunot, and together they refined the game and named it Scrabble. Initially, sales were sluggish but in the early fifties they exploded, and Scrabble has continued to sell well ever since. It reached the UK in 1954 and was marketed by Spears, a well-known maker of board games. Now, more than 150 million Scrabble sets have been sold in 121 countries, and even the Queen is said to be a fan.



As the case of Mr Hegazi illustrates, some people take their Scrabble very seriously indeed. Tens of thousands of people play club and tournament Scrabble worldwide, and the World Scrabble Championships, which until 2013 were bi-annual, are now annual and highly popular. The UK Open, which is the largest Scrabble tournament in Europe, is held in Coventry every year.

For those who aren't into competition, there are many other ways to play Scrabble. Computerised 'opponents', similar to those used in chess, have been developed, and there are Scrabble games available for most computer and video game consoles such as Mac, PC, PlayStation, iPod, iPad, Xbox and many mobile phones. There are several sites offering Scrabble online, and Scrabble apps on social media sites such as Facebook – although some Facebook based versions have been subject to legal action. Scrabble even has its own Facebook page, which in early 2015 had more than 4 million 'likes', and there is a box of Scrabble in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Thus, it seems that, despite being more than 80 years old, Scrabble still has a place in the heart of people worldwide – and if the recent court case in Australia is anything to go by, for some people it's a very important place indeed.