U.S. players react to news that new Scrabble version will allow proper nouns

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; C01

Tuesday dawned with sputtering Scrabble fans dashing for their dictionaries: Appall! (10 points). Pox! (12 points). Crazy! (19 points). Zounds! (16 points).

By day's end, they felt better: Phew. (12 points). Sheesh. (12 points). They wished they had enough tiles in their racks to spell "apocrypha" or "exaggerate."

Stefan Fatsis, a Washington-based Scrabble coach and devoted chronicler of the Scrabble world, summed up the snafu (8 points) this way: "It's a case of corporate flackery and media incompetence completely misleading the public."

What caused about 10,000 near-heart attacks from London to El Segundo, Calif., began a few days ago with a tiny item in a British trade paper. It referred to Mattel's plans to introduce a new kind of Scrabble that would permit the use of proper nouns.

The horror. To Scrabble purists, this would be like lowering the height of the baskets in the NBA, or doing away with the net in tennis. Suddenly, any idiot could spell, say, "Bjork," and score a quick 18 points.

The British press grabbed this seed and planted a garden. In their accounts for Tuesday's editions, the holy rules of basic Scrabble were being changed for the first time since they were codified in 1948 (after being invented in a slightly different form in 1938).

"Stuck at Scrabble? Bring on Beyonce!" said the Daily Mail. "My Word! Scrabble changes rules," said the Times of London. "Dumbing Noun; Scrabble Rules Are Changed to Count Names," said the Mirror.

Surely the Daily Telegraph's headline writer is a Scrabble player: "Why Quzhou is now Scrabble's dream destination."

(Quzhou, a city in China, would be worth 27 points under the new system.)

A Mattel spokeswoman who was not identified in any of the accounts told the Telegraph, "We believe that people who are already fans of the game will enjoy the changes." Most of the stories buried as an afterthought another of her comments: "Obviously some people will want to continue playing the old rules so we will still be selling a board with the original rules."

As the story got picked up in the United States a few hours later on radio, television and the Internet, citing British reports, that nuance occasionally fell out of the story completely.

The American Scrabble community checked its calendars. Was it April 1?

"I think it's an April Fools' joke," said Chris Cree, a forklift wholesaler in Dallas who is co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association. "I thought I was reading the Onion."

Others reacted with panic or scorn. Sample Scrabble tweets:

"How pusillanimous! Scrabble rules to allow proper nouns to encourage younger players."

"The game of Scrabble shall allow proper nouns, greatly increasing the popularity of Mr. Sarkozy & all the towns of Wales."

The story was no April Fools' joke, but the way it was being passed around wasn't exactly true, either.

"We're not burying the standard game at all," says Philip Nelkon, promotions manager of Mattel. "It's been around for 60 years, and we wouldn't do anything to affect the crown jewels."

Instead, Mattel plans to introduce something called Scrabble Trickster. There will be squares on the board calling on players to draw cards. The cards might instruct you to forfeit a letter to an opponent -- or permit you to spell a proper noun.

"The idea is to be a little bit more accessible," Nelkon says.

How nice -- but how irrelevant to an American Scrabble player. Because, frankly, who cares about Mattel's plans for Scrabble? Mattel controls Scrabble only outside the United States and Canada. Here, Hasbro is the maker and marketer of Scrabble. And Hasbro has no plans to introduce a version with new rules, a spokesman said. Scrabble Trickster will not be sold in the United States.

So, for the American Scrabble community, the story is . . . no story.

The collective freakout was nevertheless instructive. It said something about the nature of a classic.

"Anytime something like this happens, people go crazy because they have an unbelievable sense of ownership over Scrabble and its piece of American culture," says John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association, based on Long Island.

Scrabble was created during the Depression by Alfred Butts, an unemployed architect. He sold the rights to entrepreneur James Brunot. The game caught on in the 1950s, and a series of toy manufacturers got involved. Today there are an estimated 50 million leisure Scrabble players and thousands of serious tournament players in the United States.

"At the highest levels, Scrabble is a perfect intellectually challenging game of strategy and geometry and math and the English language," says Fatsis, a freelance journalist and author of the 2001 book "Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players." "You don't need to change anything because Alfred Butts got it right, this perfect balance between risk and reward, between luck and skill."

Fatsis has started Scrabble clubs at a couple of elementary schools and a middle school in Washington. This weekend, Coach Fatsis is leading a dozen of his young Scrabble mavens to Orlando for the eighth annual National School Scrabble Championship.

"They will not," says Fatsis, "be using proper nouns."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company