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Open Letter to a Scrabble Champion

A recent (Jan 2010) page of mine comparing the glories of Scrabble II with the stodgy stuff played at the 2009 World Scrabble Championship was brought to the attention of a Scrabble champion. He took offense at my term "baby play" for those mindless little plays of 2-letter words that make up such a big part of tournament-style Scrabble. I've since renamed them "mini-plays", but at least the former term did its job in provoking a response.

For a start, the champion's comments were based on three misunderstandings: first, that I was offering up just another Scrabble "variant"; second, that Scrabble II rules demand the use of a conventional dictionary; and third, that Scrabble II does not allow 2-letter words.

After an initial round or two, here's my open letter.

***

 
Thanks for your thoughtful attention. You say we've covered our positions but I'm quite certain mine hasn't been gotten across yet. I am not presenting Scrabble II as a "variant", but as a perfected Scrabble that I have no doubt Scrabble players would quickly migrate to given the chance. That may sound quixotic, or totally lunatic, but that's my honest position.

Scrabble II achieves what the game was always meant to be. Scrabble's inventor Alfred Butts certainly did not sit down to develop a word game where a very limited pool of very short words has far more scoring and strategic power than the big, wide ocean of much longer words known and used by everyone. When Selchow & Righter couldn't keep up with demand in those first few years, I can assure you it was not because America was bursting to play KI or KA on triple-letter score two ways.

Scrabble II is nothing more than Scrabble with a few constraints adjusted which very naturally move the game into a realm of much longer words. And that makes for a far more varied, intelligent, interesting, challenging, exciting, and fun game.

Yes, I know that anyone could make hay with that claim by saying that Boggle, or Clabbers, or Go Fish, or tiddlywinks, or any game, could be arrived at by "adjusting Scrabble constraints". But I stand by my claim. If anyone refuses to accept it, I say fine, I'm not going to argue, but be fair and give it a try.

Scrabble II does not require learning or unlearning anything. You have a rack of Scrabble tiles and a Scrabble board in front of you on which you construct a valid crossword puzzle. The fundamental strategy - how many points are you willing to throw away now in the hopes of working up a good rack for a future big play - is there in full force. All of the other familiar elements of modern tournament-style Scrabble (except bluffing) are still there, just in modified proportions. For example, you will find very quickly that Scrabble II shifts the weight from short, clunky "alongside" plays to big and bold "crosswise" plays.

I see modern Scrabble as having been corrupted over the years by two main things: the 1976 challenge rule; and the piling on of more and more words, the bulk of which are ever farther removed from any useful or recognizable vocabulary.

There can be no rational justification for the first. With the 1976 challenge rule change, Scrabble became a bluff game. It became a poker variant. At that point Scrabble ceased to be a word game and became a "whatever" game. It's interesting that no information is forthcoming, from the National Scrabble Association or any Scrabble reference I know of, about who was responsible for foisting this rule change on the Scrabble world or why it was done. Until someone can prove otherwise, I'm calling it the work of a couple of drunk, poker-playing typesetters one midnight at the Scrabble factory. If you insist on calling Scrabble II a variant, then your game, modern American tournament-style Scrabble, is an aberration of the original.

The second corruption is much more insidious. Without anyone noticing, the ever-burgeoning set of short, powerful words has caused the performance "bar" in Scrabble to drop lower and lower over the decades. I can show you that almost 70% of the words on the Scrabble boards of players with about a 1400 rating are two and three letters long. As you've seen in my web page, that drops only to something above 50% for the greatest players on earth.

It's as if baseball degenerated to 70% bunts and intentional walks; basketball stooped to 70% free throws into a 4-foot high, 4-foot wide hoop; and golf courses shortened twelve holes to par 2, with foot-wide cups and tees placed at the edge of the green.

Yes, in every one of those hypothetical cases, there would still be avid fans and players of the sport. There would still be champion teams or players, and they would undoubtedly be extraordinarily skilled. They might even be the same champions of the sport had it never degenerated.

I maintain that a combination of this superabundance of powerful pint-sized words, the small rack, constricted board, and dense pattern of premium squares has led to Scrabble possibilities becoming more or less "exhausted". None of the experts hide the fact that Scrabble is, for them, just a mathematical point-scoring exercise. With no intent to needle anyone, just telling it like I see it, the great majority of plays in modern Scrabble are simply "connect-the-dot". Just turn off your brain and let the board show you where to plunk your tiles. You more or less agree with all that when you say you like Clabbers because "it requires much stronger anagramming skills." If you tried Scrabble II, you'd find yourself anagramming like crazy - and way up there in the eights and nines.

I further claim the strangeness of words played in Scrabble has fooled Scrabble players into thinking of themselves and their game as highly intellectual. As every journalist covering a Scrabble tournament writes: "They play words even college professors don't know!" Well, maybe there's a reason college professors don't know them. What does it take to memorize a batch of "useful" little letter combinations including the J, K, Q, X, and Z? Every duffer can and does do it. Big whoop. All they've done is limit their playing options to other people who have studied the same Scrabble code words.

Scrabble II, with its "three-letter minimum" rule and running incentive for long words, puts the bar up where it always should have been. If you use a conventional dictionary, that raises it a notch higher, besides bringing a welcome dose of class to the game. Again, the Scrabble mobs can shout me down for babbling nonsense, in which case I say again, try a game and see. My first Scrabble II game was solitaire, and it just about blew me over backwards. It was Scrabble with a nuclear engine dropped in.

You say that, even if a conventional dictionary is not prescribed by Scrabble II rules, that I set it for my club, which in effect cuts us off from the rest of the Scrabble world.

Look who's talking. Think of how many hundreds of millions of potential Scrabble games never saw the light of day after one smarty-pants found out about BA, KA, NA and all that idiotic junk. Who among his family and friends would ever want to play with him again?

But, to answer your concern, I ask you to look at my Scrabble II rule concerning the play of OSPD-only words. No one has to memorize which OSPD words are not in the chosen conventional dictionary. Anyone can step back and forth between word sets without the slightest inconvenience. The tournament Scrabble world would do itself a big favor to implement my rule so that anyone can step back and forth between SOWPODS (word list for international play) and the OWL (Official Word List for America) without toil or tears.

Think about it; we have SOWPODS, the OWL, and the OSPD and the world somehow keeps spinning. (The OSPD is the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. It is the same as the OWL with offensive words removed.) Would it stop if there were a fourth Scrabble dictionary, one based on a conventional dictionary for use by recreational players and in schools? What could be an easier thing for Merriam-Webster to do in the upcoming OSPD5? They need only supply a code symbol to indicate words they would not include in their own standard dictionary. After all, they are dictionary makers.

Note that I specifically call out recreational and school play only in the interest of self-preservation. I know tournament-style Scrabble players would go ballistic if they thought I was trying to take their precious little code words away from them overnight. In fact, though, they would experience the greatest benefit by moving to a real dictionary. The point is, the closer Scrabble gets to accepting anything you plop down, the more simple-minded the activity becomes.

Perhaps this short exchange in the rec.games.board discussion group makes my point more clearly:

John: Donald, it looks like your Scrabble II game has a much smaller vocabulary than SOWPODS, wouldn't that make the game more boring?!

Phil: Were the Scrabble dictionary to be expanded to contain all sequences of letters of length less than the board size, would that make Scrabble less boring?

John: I'm talking about the words which are already legit in SOWPODS, I didn't ask for an expansion upon it.

Nick: You were implying that the shorter the word list, the more boring the game. Phil was pointing out that this is obviously false.

John: Ahh, I see. I guess I shall give Scrabble II a try some time in the future...

 
And after all of that, here's a minor shocker for you: I do allow modern, OSPD-based, tournament-style Scrabble in my club. So far, no one's ever availed himself of that. He'd have to bring his own opponents to do so, but that would be fine with me. In fact, I have made a great effort to get someone to run the modern tournament-style Scrabble side of the club.

My motives for allowing, and promoting, your modern American tournament-style Scrabble aberration are rather transparent. Anybody who came to play the tournament-style Scrabble would be drawn to Scrabble II the moment he saw our boards. It also forestalls complaints about any element of Scrabble II. If a person wants to blame his loss on the multi-person game, or because he couldn't play QAID, or because he couldn't slip a phony by, etc., besides just pointing out that we're all playing by the same rules, I can say, "Well, you can always play modern American tournament-style Scrabble." This hasn't happened, but it's nice to have an iron-clad response handy. Finally, it's just nice to hang the two rule sets side-by-side up on the wall every session. This shows at a glance what Scrabble II is and isn't. Since I've mentioned it, here are the posters:

          MODERN SCRABBLE                       SCRABBLE II                                 
                                                                                      
    Two-person games!                     
    Bluffing - challenger risks turn!     Good words only                             
    Official Scrabble Dictionary          American Heritage Dictionary 
    7-tile rack                           8-tile rack                                 
    Classic board                         Extra 3 rows around - for extensions only!           
                                          Incentive for long words:                   
                                              6-tiler - 20 pts                        
    "Bingo" bonus - 50 pts                    7-tiler - 50 pts                        
                                              8-tiler - 80 pts                        
    2-letter words galore!                No plays of just 2-letter words!            
    Standard 100 tile set                 Tiles drawn from mix of 3 sets              

 
Look at the one on the right. Feel the power surge?

You say that Scrabble II is not a "good" thing as far as promoting "our game" universally.

Why would the public, given an option, choose imperfection over perfection? What if Scrabble II, without the seedy bluff element, and with longer, more familiar words (regardless of word set), attracted millions of word lovers to the game? How could that not ultimately be a great thing for NASPA, WESPA, Hasbro, Mattel, and all Scrabble players?

You say that you could try Scrabble II using the OWL2, but why should you?

To gain some idea of what it is we're talking about? To be blown away? :-)

You say that you enjoy Scrabble as is, and you might as well take up any number of other games.

Scrabble II is offered as a vastly improved replacement for "classic" Scrabble in the sorry state it has sunk to. If you were to try it you could agree or disagree. Whether there are other games and sports out there you might like even better than a perfected Scrabble is completely beside the point.

You say that you've also been an expert at backgammon, chess, hearts, and Othello, and numerous other board games.

I'll bet you've played and enjoyed Boggle as well. And I bet you never fired off an irate letter decrying Boggle's ridiculously high bar: a 3-letter minimum, oh my! In fact, I wonder if you immediately went to a 4-letter minimum, as our family did.

I'll also bet you played Trivial Pursuit - and that you did not run off to memorize all the answers first so you'd be sure to massacre all your family and friends.

You say you don't see any point to further discussing this in a public forum.

Sure, no point whatsoever for you, but I'm doing everything in my power to start a grass-roots movement. Of course, I wouldn't object if a perceptive soul at Hasbro took a glance at the Scrabble II fixes above and cried, "Eureka!" Anyone can see how infinitely superior it is to that silly Scrabble Trickster that Mattel announced to a dumfounded world in April 2010. But more realistically, all I'm looking for is someone to tweak a good Scrabble program into Scrabble II and get it in a prominent place on the internet. And I'll pay for that.

In any case, what's to fear? If I fail in my quest, you lose nothing; if I succeed, you and everyone with a foot in the Scrabble world gain immensely.

You say Super Scrabble is a variant that managed to get Hasbro's approval, but which you don't think is nearly as good as the regular version.

Even though I got the inspiration for the extended board from Super Scrabble, the similarity ends there. Super Scrabble, with its additional premium squares packed just as densely as on the classic board, provides no inducements for playing longer words. I see it as more or less like playing two games of conventional Scrabble rolled into one - twice as many squares, twice as many tiles, twice the score.

You ask about my preference for the American Heritage.

No, I do not own stock. And no, it's not because we get to play AYA, CAPING and other words you can't. :-) Unless I've been sorely misled, it is America's most highly respected dictionary. It is the only dictionary that consults a usage panel of renowned men and women of letters. It's relatively conservative, and I actually prefer that, both for everyday use, and in Scrabble. A more cultivated word set actually lifts the Scrabble performance bar and gives rise to the most beautiful and dignified Scrabble boards on earth. Sadly, the American Heritage seems to be striving to become as silly as other dictionaries. After all, if you give words like GONNA, GOTTA, ONCET, PURTY, etc. your seal of approval, you have to let in every alternate spelling of every regional and personal pronunciation of every sound ever uttered by man and beast. Who needs it or wants it? Never mind that no library on earth could hold a dictionary so large.

Scrabble champion Dan Pratt has written that words were gleaned for the OSPD from dictionaries already out of print by the time the OSPD was first published, and that about 5% of the words in it are no longer in any dictionary in print. Can anyone refute that? I'd estimate about 25% of its words are not in my trusty American Heritage. Who needs them? The American Heritage has far more words than I'll ever use in a lifetime. I stick to the claim that OSPD's "foreign" and "rare" entries have made Scrabble dumber and dumber while providing nothing of value to users of the English language. See my scathing School Scrabble page.

You say I do not want to go to the trouble to study new words.

I could point out, for the umpteenth time, that, even without studying Scrabble word lists, I play much longer and more varied words than you and all your fellow Scrabble champions do.

But I can assure you that I put more effort into learning new words than all but the most zealous handful of Scrabble players. The difference is that all of my studying comes from my reading material. Many of the new words I learn do not further my Scrabble skills whatsoever - fancy that! Here, for example, are a few of the words I just learned (hopefully) from a Fourth Grade Reader from 1882: SCOUT (treat with disdain), CALLOW (without feathers), START (flush game), TIGER (servant who rides with master), KINSFOLK, RIMPLE, LOADSTONE, MAINYARD (main yard), GOOD-LACK, LAVEROCK (lark), WAGTAIL, and THANKY (thankee).

Wrapping up on Clabbers, you say it is "more engrossing" to you, and that "there's much more to think about on every play."

That says to me that we are in close agreement regarding the dismal state to which modern Scrabble has sunk. I would estimate the Scrabble bar is somewhere down between your ankle and big toe. Your response is to turn to a variant that makes you use your brain.

My mission is to whip grand, ol' Scrabble back onto its feet!

Donald Sauter

 
Follow-up: There was a little further communication, of which I'll provide one more sample. I figured since there was no hope of this champion actually spending half an hour of his life trying a Scrabble II game, I would send a picture of one of our recently played games. I chose one with a somewhat striking appearance, although it's not extraordinary by Scrabble II standards. It has eight words of 7 letters or greater, and we often do better than that. (ZAX and UDO embarrass me somewhat; most of our games are completely free from such Scrabble junk.)

Game 015 - January 28, 2010
Scrabble II.
Total tiles played: 105 
Unplayed tiles: O Y 
Power tiles: 10  X Z Z _ _ _ S S S S 
Tile oddities:  no J  no Q
Percent expected vowels: 102%
Words on final board: 
 8: DEFEATED UNIRONED ENLISTED ROASTERS OUTPITCH PARANOID
 7: RAZORED GALLEON
 6: SYMBOL MALIGN BEAUTS HOUSED FREAKY
 5: FECAL WEAVE PAVED
 4: ZEAL ZOON
 3: ZAX UDO
 2: BY LA EH DO ER ME AD

The champion replied:

I have to laugh, because despite your expectations, I would find that game very boring without all of the twos and the strategy required for the current regular game.

 
So there you have it - one of the greatest Scrabble players on earth basically admitting he couldn't do any better than us with the same racks.

Lest the reader go away swayed by the champion's parting shot, let me assure you that in Scrabble II the racks do NOT play themselves; that the eighth tile gives rise to EIGHT times as many permutations to consider; that working up a good rack for a good play uses ALL of the strategy familiar to modern Scrabble (except bluffing). In fact, getting rid of unwanted tiles involves MORE thought than ever.

Scrabble with thinking - try it!

 


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Helpful keywords not in the main text: naspa = North American Scrabble Players Association; wespa = world english scrabble players association.

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