Calvin’s Commentaries: Scrabble

When it comes to board games, a scant few among the thousands have developed national and/or international organizations to support the game.

It is fascinating to me that a group of board game fans would have had the tenacity that would have been required to create such organizations.

I also respect the effort of members through the years who kept such organizations alive and vibrant, so it was an easy decision to touch base with some of the people doing such work; starting this week with an email interview with John Chew of the North American SCRABBLE Players Association, and a Certified Tournament Director from Toronto.

Scrabble has been a popular game for years, created by Alfred Mosher Butts back in 1948. Interestingly, the NASPA is a much more recent creation, formed in 2009.

Chew, who lives in downtown Toronto actually has a local area connection.

“My wife’s grandfather was part of the Icelandic community that settled near you in Churchbridge,” he said, proving again the world is a rather small place, with an email making it smaller still.

So the first question was a simple one; how was Chew initially introduced to the game, and as a follow-up, what is it about the game that has managed to keep him obviously keenly interested in it?

“I started playing Scrabble three times,” he related.

“The first time was as a child: my father would buy my brother and me a new board game whenever we were able to beat him at the last one he bought, so we quickly learned to become very competitive board game players. My father is a linguistics professor, so it took us longer than usual to get a new game after Scrabble, but we eventually managed it.

“The second time was as a young man living for a few years in France. After a few months of speaking only French, I found that English words weren’t coming to mind as quickly as they used to, and when I happened across the Nintendo Game Boy Scrabble cartridge (which tells you how long ago this was), I happily started playing it and learned all about a more competitive style of play, where you had to know all the two-letter words, U-less Q words, and high-probability bingos.
“The third time was as a graduate student when I met a group of players playing online in 1993 in the first-ever Scrabble server.

“When I was able to hold my own against them, they suggested I visit my local Scrabble club. It took me a few months to get up the courage to do so, but I knew when I walked through the doors of the Toronto Scrabble Club that I had found my tribe.

“There were people of every ethnicity, social class, age, gender, etc., completely oblivious to what took place away from the game boards between them.

“Five years later, when the founding club director, Mike Wise, died of cancer at an early age, I took over running the club, and eventually worked my way up to heading the North American Scrabble Players Association.”

But, what is about Scrabble that has so completely held Chew’s attention.

“I enjoy the game for three reasons,” he said.

“One is the camaraderie with kindred spirits, who cannot look at a word without anagramming it.

“Another is the wide range of skills from novice to expert, which means that you can always improve your skills through study or practice.

“The third is the solid design of the game, which is constructed as a series of about a dozen challenging word puzzles for each of two players, where solving each puzzle by finding the right play gives you a little jolt of dopamine, and if you win the game or the tournament at the end, another huge boost.”

Still, as note tens-of-there are thousands of games out there, but only a handful have national and international organizations. What has allowed the Scrabble organization/game to remain active and vibrant?

Chew related that in his mind there are several reasons for this.

“There are people in this world whose brains are wired to play Scrabble (not even necessarily well), and they tend to seek each other out and need structure to coordinate their activities,” he said.

“There’s a small infrastructure burden in managing Scrabble in the form of ongoing editing of the tournament lexicon, which tends also to require a coordinating organizational structure.”

Chew also noted, when Scrabble first became popular, there were far fewer competitive board games on the market.

It has helped the game remains on store shelves too.

“The trademark rights to the game are owned by Hasbro and Mattel, and they have marketing reasons for wanting to cultivate a competitive culture in the game, without having to directly manage it in-house,” said Chew.
And Scrabble today is not the exact Scrabble of 1948.
“As for the game itself, it has evolved with changes to the language, and the proportion of the population that is interested in competitive word games has stayed relatively constant,” said Chew. “The trademark owners are able to license the game to developers with each shift in technology, to give the appearance that there is always a new version of the game to play.

Technology plays a role as it does in most things in our lives these days.

“In normal times, that is to say when we are not in the middle of a pandemic, online play tends to recruit new members of our community,” said Chew. “That’s because the social aspect of meeting in clubs and tournaments with people who have a similar passion for word games is a huge part of the appeal of our experience.

“And of course, during a pandemic, the ability to play to some extent online, while you chat with your opponents by Zoom, helps keep the flame burning.”

Of course, there is a bit of a chink in online play to be considered, added Chew.

“One significant issue with playing scrabble online is the suspicion of cheating,” he said. “When strong competitive players are randomly matched with novice players online, the novice players often think that the strong players must be cheating because they haven’t experienced such a high level of play. This can be a frustrating experience for both of them.”

Through the years, as more games hit the market, and video games emerged, Scrabble has tended to just keep on being as popular as ever.

“Our numbers have stayed relatively stable decade to decade,” said Chew. “They get a boost whenever there is a large enough publicity event to attract the attention of people who aren’t aware that we exist.

“And then they gradually drop back down to an equilibrium level over the course of about a decade.”

In Canada, the game appears to be in good hands.

“We have a certification system for our club and tournament directors, to make sure that our players have a consistently good experience at our events,” said Chew, adding, “so yes, I think we are well organized.

“Our player numbers are OK. I think they will see a boost when the pandemic is over because there will be pent up demand for social activities.”

As a final question, I was curious why Chew would suggest someone play the game/become involved in a club or national organization?

“If you are playing in a small group on a regular basis, you will find that there is a player who wins too many games and a player who loses too many games,” he said.

“If you play in a club or tournament, you can be better matched with a larger group of opponents, to make sure that you are appropriately challenged.

“If you are an elite player, you can also have the joy of knowing where exactly you stand on a national or international basis.

“And of course, the more people you play the more friends you make, and the better of player you will be.”

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