Scrabble Creator Stuck for Words

by Ray Setterfield


Event Date: June 28, 1971
Location: New York City, New York, USA

The first British national Scrabble competition was staged in London on this day and won by Stephen Haskell, a young teacher. He notched up an aggregate score of 1,345 points from three games.

That would have impressed Alfred Mosher Butts, an American architect who invented the game in the 1930s. The Great Depression had left him without work but not without ideas and inspiration.

He liked crosswords, chess and other mind games and settled down in his New York apartment to create a new game that would involve knowledge, strategy and chance – and hopefully earn him some money. The world came to know his creation as Scrabble, but that’s not what Mr Butts called it.

He first tried naming it Lexico, then in 1940, with sparse interest from game manufacturers and his dream starting to fade, he renamed it Criss Cross Words. That didn’t work either so finally, in desperation, he called the game simply . . . It.

Thankfully, a friend, James Brunot, offered to manufacture and market the game when he retired from work in 1948. He was the one who came up with the name Scrabble.

Sales in the early days were modest, amounting, it is said, to a few dozen sets a week. The breakthrough came in 1952 when an executive of Macy’s saw some people playing the game and was intrigued. Soon it was stocked on the shelves of the famous New York department store.

From then on there was no looking back and the game became popular across the world, eventually selling about 100 million sets.

Mr Butts told the New York Times that for many years he earned royalties, amounting to about three cents a set. "One-third went to taxes," he said. "I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life."

The New York Times also revealed that Mrs. Nina Butts was better at the game than her inventor husband. Once she scored 234 for "quixotic." He admitted that she "beat me at my own game," literally.

Mr Butts died in April, 1993, aged 93.

Published: May 2, 2017

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