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(HOST) Board games have long been a favorite activity for long Vermont winter evenings. Commentator Willem Lange pays tribute to an obscure, out-of-work architect who invented one of the world’s most popular pastimes.

(LANGE) At midwinter of 1959, married for less than two months, my bride and I were living in a little bare-bones apartment in the Adirondacks. My mother must have sensed how long those dark winter evenings would be. For Christmas she gave us a Scrabble set. Over all the years since then, we’ve kept track of our high scores, high combined scores, and highest-scoring words. I’m embarrassed to report our scores are not improving with age.

Scrabble was invented during the Great Depression by an unemployed architect named Alfred Butts. Out of work and desperate for something to turn his hand to, he conceived the notion of inventing a board game. He combined the language
skills needed for crossword puzzles with the element of chance
in drawing unknown letters from a pile.

Butts also parsed the front page of The New York Times and counted the incidence of each letter of the alphabet. This determined how many of each letter would be in the total of one hundred tiles in the game, and what value would be attached to each. The most frequent are worth the least, the least frequent – Q, Z, J, and X – the most. He shorted the selection of S’s to discourage making cheap plurals out of opponents’ brainstorms. And he hit it right on the button; that distribution of letters hasn’t changed for seventy-five years.

His game was not an overnight success; it struggled for years and failed to show a profit. But, according to legend, the president of Macy’s, on vacation, played the game one day. The rest is well-known history.

Scrabble is familiar worldwide, and the game is played in several languages. During the Carter Administration years, the American hostages in Iran made a set out of scraps of paper and played it
to pass the time.

You can play at several levels of intensity, from the friendly, where you can pick up your mistakes and try again, to the competitive, Official-Scrabble-dictionary-at-the-ready tournament. You can bluff, putting down imaginary words constructed from letters you’re stuck with. In a friendly game, however, there’s a tacit compact not to cut that corner.

Kids do very well at Scrabble. Our younger daughter, while still in middle school, made the all-time high-scoring word recorded on the inside of our box cover. She spelled ‘equalized,’ hit two triple-word score boxes, and totted up one hundred seventy-five points.

Scrabble suffered somewhat in my affections about ten years ago when Hasbro closed its only United States tile-making factory in Fairfax, Vermont, putting eighty-seven people out of work. The million-tile-a-day plant used Vermont sugar maple for its product.

So for a while there was a Scrabble moratorium around here. But we’re back at it again now. I suspect, however, that Mother’s been sneaking peeks at the official word book. How else could she have come up with ‘qoph’?

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire. I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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