What's in a word?

January 29, 2007 10:00

For members of Scrabble clubs across the country the game isn't just about how you play, it's about whether you win or lose.

What's in a word?

(photo credit:)

Alfred Mosher Butts was depressed. Although in 1924 he'd graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in architecture, he was out of work and almost out of money. He wasn't alone. It was1933, the depths of the Great Depression, and almost everyone in the US was broke. No one had need for an architect. But Butts - a small, quiet, wiry man, a perfectionist in everything he did - had an idea. Few people could afford luxuries, he knew, but almost everyone could put together a couple of dollars for cheap entertainment, a diversion from their problems. Board games - the ultimate in inexpensive, stay-at-home entertainment - were popular. So although Butts had no particular affinity for words, he began working on a word-based board game that might tie into the popular obsession with crossword puzzles, another cheap form of entertainment. According to Stefan Fatsis, who chronicled Butts' life in his book Word Freak, Butts struggled with the game, then had a 'eureka moment' while reading the Edgar Allen Poe story The Gold Bug. In Poe's story, the protagonist, William Legrand, solves a cipher problem by comparing symbols to letters in the alphabet. The key to the solution was that in the English alphabet the most frequently-occurring letter is 'e.' The light bulb over Butts's head went off. In his game, he decided, players wouldn't use just a random jumble of letters, but rather a mixture that reflects the same frequency of the letters' actual use in word formation. But what is the frequency of the letter 'e?' What's the relative frequency of 's,' 'b' or 'n?' Butts had no idea, so he set about studying the newspaper, starting with the October 5, 1933 obituary page of the Herald Tribune. Meticulously, he counted letters and words, underlining in green and brown ink. The rest of the story is pure Americana: how Butts produced his first version of the game we now know as Scrabble, a game he called 'Lexiko,' which used 100 tiles to make nine or 10-letter words. How, in August 1934, Butts personally hand produced and sold 84 sets, showing expenses of $147.46, with gross receipts of $127.03. How, eventually, the game was taken over by a man named James Brunot, who changed it slightly, using just seven tiles. And how Brunot then saw the game through to its unimaginable success: a hundred million sets sold and billions of games played all over the world. Even in Israel, people from all backgrounds fell victim to the Scrabble bug. Chief among its adherents was 'Scrabble' Sam Orbaum, the late Jerusalem Post columnist whose spirit still pervades all Scrabble games played anywhere in the country. Orbaum was not only a way-beyond-passionate Scrabble player himself, organizing tournaments and writing articles about the game, but his enthusiasm inspired the creation of Scrabble clubs all over Israel. Orbaum enjoyed the competitive aspect of the game. "If you think a Scrabble club is just letters and words and well-behaved, smart people, you're thoroughly misinformed," Orbaum wrote in a June 30, 2000 column. "It's also guns and knives and fisticuffs, and sometimes, people who seem like they got lost on the way to the Hell's Angels club." According to club records, the still-thriving 'Sam Orbaum Jerusalem Scrabble Club' was formed in 1983 - which means that the 'Mitzi Antflick Beer Sheva Scrabble Club,' which came into existence in early 1982, may officially be the oldest in the country. Tamar Iancu, one of the founders of the Beersheba club, still reigns today as queen of the wordsmiths. "I first came into contact with Scrabble in Boston in the 1950s," she recalls. "On Sunday afternoons, my mother, aunts and cousins would sit around and play. They thought I was too young, so when I received a Scrabble game for my 13th birthday I was ecstatic. I've played ever since. I made aliya in 1966 and began looking for other players in Beersheba but couldn't find any, so I taught my Romanian husband to play. His game was hilarious - he could misspell in six languages." Iancu returned to England, then came back to Beersheba in 1981. This time she was determined to find other players. "I learned that AACI (the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) had a games club that met monthly in a bomb shelter, so I went but was horrified to see they were playing a three-handed game of Scrabble! I explained politely that a good game of Scrabble should be played like a good game of chess: one-on-one. Mitzi Antflick was there, heard what I said, and recognized a kindred spirit. Mitzi was the one who spearheaded the drive for a Scrabble club in Beersheba." Until her passing in 1998, Antflick was not only the club's founder, but its driving spirit, authority on rules, arbitrator of disputes and prime player. "Mitzi was a stickler for rules," Iancu says. "She had an iron fist in a velvet glove. She'd hand out lists of new words and expected us to memorize them. If we were a player short, she'd play two games simultaneously. She was just amazing." Antflick made contact with Orbaum, and he encouraged the group. "Sam supplied materials and addresses, and Beersheba became part of the Israel national league," Iancu recounts. "We had players from 10 to 80-years-old - which caused quite a rift. There were those in the club who objected to having children play. One lady said, 'If I want to play with children, I'll play with my own grandchildren.' But Mitzi insisted, saying children were the future of the club. So the grandmother left, and the children stayed." In fact, the 'children' played better than many adults. "When we went to the next national tournament we took two of the children along, Maor and Ra'anan Eichler. Maor, the older, acquitted himself well in the intermediate division, and today is ranked as first or second in Israel. Ra'anan, who at the time was only 10 years old, competed against eleven adults in the casual division and won, hands-down." Today, the Beersheba club meets monthly, but Iancu is working to reinvigorate the club. "We get eight to 10 players once a month, but that's down from the 16 or 18 we used to get. I'm trying to build it up again." One bitterly cold evening in January, an eclectic group gathered to play. The ages ranged from seriously retired to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) students, from orthodox to secular, from the experienced Iancu to newcomer Barry Pakes, who said he was playing maybe his 15th game in his life. "I've come to the club about four times," Pakes, a physician working on his PhD, says. "My wife is in the Columbia Medical Program at BGU, so for me, part of the attraction is to be around other English speakers. My Hebrew is fine, but sometimes it's just nice to relax and socialize with a different crowd than the students we hang around with the rest of the time." Tonight Pakes has two jobs - entertaining his nine-month-old daughter Shayna as well as playing Scrabble. "We didn't have a sitter," he says. As Shayna gurgles happily from her perch on the sofa, Pakes takes on one of the club's stalwarts, Dr. David Newman, one of the early members who now lives in New York but can't miss playing Scrabble during the family's annual visit. "I started playing Scrabble about fifty years ago," Newman recalls. "I was in the army and I had a little metal traveling set, so I played left-handed scrabble - by myself. It wasn't very much fun, but when you have hours of time and can't go anywhere, it was good." Scrabble players are much like baseball fans or contract bridge players: They can recount games and scores - their own and everyone else's - for decades. "My best word?" ponders Newman. "When I was 10, I made 'windings,' for a huge score. My highest scoring word was 'squilgee' - and then the next turn, I added an 's' so it got a triple count. That was great." What's a 'squilgee?' Newman doesn't know. "You don't have to know the meaning of the words," he says. "The best players don't. They just know the word." Various clubs behave differently, Newman says. "We have a friendly game here, it's pretty casual. But in some clubs, they don't allow 'coffeehousing' - chatter. There can be a room of a hundred people playing, and you can hear a pin drop." In Beersheba, the chatter is non-stop. Tentative words are suggested, alternatives explored. Iancu even suggests to her opponent that he move his word over a few spaces to get more points. "We're playing for fun, here," she explains.

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